Showing yourself compassion has been proven to make you happier, fitter, and more resilient — and it's something that experts say most people aren't tapping nearly enough.

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In this tumultuous time, when everyone could cut themselves a little slack, there instead seems to be a self-compassion gap in modern society.

"Seventy-eight percent of us feel more compassion for others than for ourselves," says Chris Germer, Ph.D., a founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. Even a small shift in this mindset represents an opportunity to lift your well-being in such far-ranging ways. 

How, exactly? Here's what self-compassion is, plus how to start practicing it on the regular.

Why You Need to Start Practicing Self-Compassion — and How to Do Just That , A young woman in her living room hugging herself in the sunlight
Credit: Getty Images

What Is Self-Compassion?

Practicing self-compassion means having sensitivity toward your own suffering, along with a deep wish to alleviate that suffering. Self-compassion shows up not just as tenderness and nurturing. It can also be strong and protective, like a mama-bear instinct.

"Applied inward, that fierce, energized self-compassion can motivate us to stand up for our own justice and equality," says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., the author of the new book Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive (Buy It, $20, amazon.com). "Women aren't allowed to be angry in our society, but anger can be a positive and transformative emotion — just look at our recent social justice movements." 

The science on self-compassion is truly compelling, with thousands of studies pointing to its perks. When you allow yourself some wiggle room — maybe you didn't stick to your running routine or you missed a work deadline, but that's okay because you're human — you create a sense of value that is intrinsic and isn't tied to the external and sometimes fickle barometers you often look to for self-esteem: your appearance, how you performed on a test or a job task, how society judges you, says Germer. Self-compassion is unconditional self-love, especially when things go wrong in your life. It reinforces the idea that acceptance and kindness is the goal, not perfection and performance.

To those who think the practice could somehow make you more complacent and self-centered, research finds the opposite is true. People who rate high on self-compassion are actually more motivated to self-improve after a failure (whether it's a botched test or a personal transgression), according to research from the University of California, Berkeley. Those who practice self-compassion are also more likely to be concerned for others and be cooperative, Neff's research finds. And people who score high on self-compassion are more likely to take good care of themselves: A 2019 review in the Journal of Health Psychology found that self-compassion practitioners were more apt to quit smoking, rein in overeating, get adequate sleep, seek out social support when they needed it, and engage in physical activity. That's not to mention what it can do for combating stress, boosting your mood and self-image, alleviating pain, and building resilience. Simply put, self-compassion is one of the easiest and most potent ways to feel happier and be healthier.

Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive

The Benefits of Practicing Self-Compassion

There are over 4,000 studies on self-compassion and the myriad ways it can improve your mental and physical well-being. Here are just a few payoffs to motivate you to treat yourself with the goodness you deserve.

It motivates you to take care of yourself.

"A lot of research shows that people who score high on self-compassion eat better, exercise more, and keep doctor appointments," says Neff. One reason: That same tend-and-befriend response that tamps down stress also reduces impulsive, reward-seeking behaviors. 

Self-compassion also helps you drill down to what is truly good for you: "It's an attitude of genuine consideration, one that a good parent would have toward a child who wants to have ice cream for dinner every night. The loving and compassionate decision is to say no, to balance the short-term pleasure with the long-term benefit because you value the person," says Germer.

It reduces stress and makes you feel safe.

During the pandemic, people who practiced self-compassion — including journaling exercises (for example, writing a letter to oneself about a perceived weakness from the perspective of a friend) and meditations (affirmations and soothing touch) — were less overwhelmed and less likely to turn to harmful coping mechanisms like emotional eating and alcohol, according to a 2021 paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Self-compassion creates a sense of emotional safety, even in the face of uncertainty, which in turn lowers stress and stress-related behaviors. This effect is chemical: Self-compassion activates your parasympathetic system, which triggers the release of oxytocin, the "love hormone" that makes us feel comforted. (Related: How to Identify Your Feelings with a Wheel of Emotions — and Why You Should)

It eases pain.

A 2020 study by Germer found that when people with chronic lower-back pain trained in self-compassion for two weeks — using a practice similar to the five-minute drill described earlier — their brains showed a change in response to pain: An area of the brain that assigns importance to pain was less active, and an area that regulates the threat response became more active. (Back pain, besides being a physical ache, triggers our threat defense system and can cue negative emotions, such as shame at being unable to function normally and a bad mood from being sidelined.)

Self-compassion — acknowledging it's not your fault, that your condition doesn't define you — turns on your tend-and-befriend system, which relaxes your body and buffers your response to physical and psychological suffering.

It helps defend against anxiety and depression.

Self-compassionate people ruminate less, so they're less prone to feeling down and anxious. In addition, findings from Madeleine Ferrari, Ph.D., an Australian researcher, show that self-compassion can weaken the costs of perfectionism. It enables you to become much more forgiving of your flaws, and thus reduce risk of depression.

It makes you more resilient.

A University of Arizona study found that recently separated couples who displayed more self-compassion when talking about the experience adjusted better to divorce. One reason: Self-compassion helps short-circuit self-pity and rumination, which keeps you stuck in the problem. (Related: Developing This Type of Resilience Can Help You Achieve Major Personal Growth)

Closing the Self-Compassion Gap

Why isn't something that's so good for you second nature? For one, it's more acceptable in many cultures to prioritize other people's needs over our own, says Germer. You can also blame evolution, says Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., a psychologist and the founder of the Compassionate Mind Foundation. When faced with a threat like hostile emotions — shame from embarrassment, distress during an argument — your built-in tendency to self-monitor and self-judge (which can help you determine if you've made a mistake and need to correct it) can lead you to attack yourself. (If you've ever thought, "I'm so dumb for doing that," then you'll understand the reflex.)

But you can train yourself to turn over a new leaf. "As children, most of us were not taught how to self-soothe, so we have to learn it as adults," says Hilary Tindle, M.D., the author of Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging (Buy It, $27, amazon.com). "There's only so much nurturing that a favorite food or pedicure can do, really. Self-compassion is the missing layer in most of our lives." The first step is doing a gut check to determine where you rate with your level of self-compassion. Neff created a survey for that purpose, and there are a few big-picture questions you can ask yourself: Am I sometimes or often disapproving and judgmental about my flaws? When I'm feeling down, do I sometimes or often obsess and fixate on everything that's wrong? When I think about my inadequacies, does it tend to make me feel more separate and cut off from others? 

If you answered yes to any of the above, you could benefit from building your self-compassion muscle.

Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging

How to Practice Self-Compassion

For many folks who are used to treating themselves with tough love, the way to mental TLC can seem elusive. But you're well served to switch tactics: "Research shows it's easier to meet your goals when you encourage yourself from a place of kindness," says Germer.

First, try this mini self-compassion break whenever you begin beating yourself up about something: Close your eyes and think of the situation that's causing you stress (work issues, a toxic friendship). Then ask yourself where you feel it most in your body. Focus and say to yourself, "This is a moment of suffering." Acknowledging discomfort is the first step, says Germer. 

Next, tell yourself, "I'm not alone." The idea is to connect with at least one other person in similar circumstances. Finally, put your hands over your heart and say, "May I be kind to myself. May I give myself what I need." To find those sentiments, imagine that a loved one is having the same problem. "What would you say to this person, heart to heart? Offer yourself that message," says Germer. (Related: Try These Mantras for Anxiety When You're Feeling Overwhelmed)

Why Self-Compassion Exercises Work

That five-minute drill is so effective as a mental reset, says Neff, because it incorporates the three pillars of self-compassion: mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness that's directed inward. "To experience the benefits of self-compassion, you need those three key aspects," she says. 

Practicing mindfulness by tuning in to how you're feeling enables you to identify the simple fact that you may be hurting. "This isn't natural for many of us, since our first instinct is to avoid pain or move quickly into fix-it mode, instead of sitting with the suffering," says Germer. "You can't move past something you don't acknowledge in the first place." If you're demoralized after being passed over for a promotion, validate that feeling. Don't push it away by devaluing it ("I shouldn't be so upset by my boss's decision") or judging it ("I'm acting petty"). It's about finding that sweet spot between ignoring it and getting carried away by it.

Tying your experience to a sense of common humanity helps you understand that there's nothing wrong with feeling embarrassed or angry and that it's part of the human experience. "It reminds us that we're interconnected, and it helps us feel less isolated," Neff says. This step also helps us from getting stuck in a "woe is me" spiral. When you ruminate on the negative, you're essentially holding yourself hostage in a stressful scenario and a bad mood and refusing yourself the stress relief, productive processing, and mood boost that self-compassion delivers.

The last piece of the puzzle is being able to show yourself kindness. "One of our most basic needs as humans is love. We often look to others for that, but we should give that to ourselves in an acknowledgment that we're as important as any other person," says Germer. Ask yourself: What do I need right now? If you're drawing a blank, break it down: What do I need to feel better physically (a warm bath, tea)? What do I need to feel better emotionally (a good cry, a cuddle with my cat)? What do I need to validate my pain (journaling, calling a friend)? What do I need to protect myself (saying no to someone, setting a boundary)? What do I need to hear to motivate myself?

Having a feel-good mantra can help with that final bit: Research in the 2014 Annual Review of Psychology found that positive affirmations can motivate us to change our behaviors so that we enjoy better education, health, and relationship outcomes. "Positive self-talk, even if it doesn't provide an immediate result of brimming self-confidence, allows you to be open to the possibility that something can work out well, and that the next time, you can do things differently," says Dr. Tindle. (Related: Your Negative Self-Talk Could Be Harming Your Health — Here's How to Stop)

Repeat after this: You've got this.

Shape Magazine, October 2021 issue