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What Is Self-Compassion, Anyway?

Written by Kara Thompson, Licensed Social Worker

Self-esteem, self-care, self-talk… If you’ve spent any time reading the hottest self-help book or participated in any sort of individual therapy, I’m sure you’re familiar with these terms. As we spend time turned inwards towards the “self,” it’s also important that we bring our awareness to another: self-compassion. As defined by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, “self-compassion involves treating yourself the way you would treat a friend who is having a hard time—even if your friend blew it or is feeling inadequate, or is just facing a tough life challenge” (Neff & Germer, 2019). Let’s reflect on this for a second… treating ourselves as we would a good friend. What a simple concept that unexpectedly proves to be increasingly difficult when we begin to walk it out. Bringing kindness to the table, accepting your limitations, and working to eliminate the judgment so that we can move towards wellness… that is really what self-compassion is all about. 

“Well, I don’t want to engage in self-pity?!”

You don’t? Awesome! Getting stuck in self-pity can be full of exaggerated personal suffering while leading us to forget that others are struggling too. Self-pity is described by Dr. Kristin Neff as the opposite of self-compassion. The often victim-centered dialogue found within self-pity (“Poor me!”) is actually quite different than the dialogue of self-compassion (“Wow, a lot of us are struggling right now. I can choose to be kind to myself as well”). Self-compassion brings awareness to a collective pain and struggle, acknowledging that it may show up for each one of us differently. It allows us to create a space for a non-judgmental exploration of our suffering. Kindness and acceptance of self allows us to “zoom-out” and gain perspective on the human experience. Self-compassion is not about making excuses for poor behavior, but rather providing the safety needed to acknowledge, admit it, and begin to work out a plan of action. 

The work of Dr. Kristin Neff identifies these three elements of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness- Offering to understand ourselves, rather than criticize, when dealing with difficult human experiences
  2. Common humanity- Recognizing that suffering, mistakes, and feelings of inadequacy are part of what it means to be human
  3. Mindfulness- Observing and finding equilibrium in our thoughts and feeling, avoiding negative tendencies such as exaggeration and suppression 

The Yin and Yang

In an article titled “The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion” by Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, they bring attention to the balance of yin and yang that is vital in this work. The “yin” refers to the way we are encouraged to validate and soothe ourselves through self-compassion. It speaks to the human need to feel comforted and safe, feeling as though we are truly heard. “Yin” says to us “Hey, I know you are going through a lot right now. You’re sensing anxiety creeping up and feeling tightness in your chest. I’m here to walk alongside you through this.” 

They then go on to identify the “yang” as the way we motivate and provide for ourselves. The “yang” refers to the active component that empowers us to seek out what we feel we need. “Yang” says to us “Hey, I know you are going through a lot right now. You’re sensing anxiety creeping up and feeling tightness in your chest. What do you need right now? Let’s try using those skills you’ve learned.” 

Without both of these components, we may find ourselves stuck. Too much “yin” and we end up enabling our insecurity and fear of change. Too much “yang” and we forget the role that warmth and kindness need to play in our lives. And with that, I ask that you sit with this thought once again: What would it look like to demonstrate compassion to ourselves, in the same way, we would to a friend? 

If you have noticed yourself struggling with self-compassion and would like to talk to a licensed therapist, please reach out to us at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact us online or by phone at (312) 578-9990 to schedule an appointment with a compassionate therapist today!  


Neff, K. (2020, July 9). Definition and Three Elements of Self Compassion. Self-Compassion.

Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2019, January 29). The Transformative Effects of Self-Compassion. Mindful.

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