What is self-compassion?

If you ever speak to yourself harshly, practicing self-compassion is a wonderful antidote to your negative critic. Of course, it takes time to not automatically…


If you ever speak to yourself harshly, practicing self-compassion is a wonderful antidote to your negative critic. Of course, it takes time to not automatically be self-critical, so it’s valuable to take some time defining the key aspects of self-compassion.

In this article, I will explain the definition of self-compassion as well as review one of the key texts on the subject, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

Defining Self-Compassion

In Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, author Dr. Kristin Neff, explains that self-compassion is when you honor your own suffering, or pain, and provide yourself with kindness so that you are motivated to help yourself. Self-compassion also is the perfect antidote to negative self-talk and a lack of self-love.

While I don’t recall Neff ever highlighting this, self-compassion is the practice of what it means to “show yourself some grace.” It’s providing understanding to yourself in the face of life’s challenges and distressing moods.

It makes sense if you are critical of yourself

Neff validates that it’s understandable if you are unkind to yourself. Many people speak unkindly to themselves as a result of the emphasis on competition in Western society. There is a cultural expectation that to be “good enough” we should always be striving to be the best in every area of life.

Of course, it’s not humanly possible to be the best in every area. We all have our gifts and strengths as well as our flaws and challenges. All human beings experience success as well as failure and rejection.

Defining Self-Compassion: You are human

One of the three tenets of self-compassion is to embrace your common humanity. This means truly accepting the fact that as a human being you are imperfect and will experience suffering in life. It’s not a flaw in the system, or you, when you experience setbacks, disappointments, rejection, failure or make mistakes. It’s a part of the process as a human being.

When you accept your common humanity, you let go of the illusion of perfection. This is important both to manage anxiety and to have a better relationship with yourself and others. Furthermore, it’s less lonely. As Neff highlights, when you constantly feel you have to be better than others it’s sets us up for profound loneliness when we don’t “measure up.”

If you want to stop being a perfectionist, reading this book as well as practicing its exercises and steps is a wonderful place to start.

Defining Self-Compassion: Mindfulness

The next tenet of self-compassion is mindfulness. Neff explains, “To give ourselves compassion, we first have to recognize we are suffering. We can’t heal what we can’t feel.” She adds we are less effective at coping with our emotions when we aren’t aware of them. I’m sure all of us can relate to snapping at someone and being surprised that we were so irritable.

In our busy lives, there is a focus on always going rather than being. To become self-compassionate, we must become more aware of what we are thinking and feeling to show up for ourselves in a kind way. This is incredibly important for mental health. Neff shares research that proves people who are self-compassionate are less anxious and depressed.

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, you may want to consider reading this book and developing a self-compassion practice in addition to other skills and supports like therapy. Personally, learning to be more aware of my emotions and showing up for myself with love has helped me recover from the depression I struggled with for two decades.

Defining Self-Compassion: Self-Kindness

Neff explains that self-kindness is the practice of noticing your painful or uncomfortable emotions and then making the choice to soothe and comfort yourself. Throughout the book, Neff provides helpful examples of doing this very thing especially when dealing with the struggles related to her son’s autism.

As a therapist, I can attest that practicing self-soothing is life changing. It helps with managing trauma and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Examples of self-soothing include deep breathing and aromatherapy. We may self-soothe with our self-talk as well and Neff recommends creating a self-compassionate mantra in times of distress.

Self-soothing and mindfulness are also important relationship skills. As a couples therapist, one of my most recommended skills is to take a time-out from arguments. When we become agitated or escalated, we literally can’t think clearly (this is part of fight-flight-freeze). Therefore, we must take a break to protect our relationship from the unkind things we may say (or yell). When we come back, we can then communicate in a more effective, kind manner with one another.

Self-compassion means to have better relationships

Neff insightfully points out in various chapters that a pattern of self-criticism harms relationships. After all, if you are striving to be better than others, it’s natural you will then judge the people around you negatively. It’s hard to be close to others when we are busy judging them.

Highly self-critical people, Neff reveals, are less happy in their relationships because they assume their partner is judging them as harshly as they judge themselves. When you can accept yourself with more understanding and kindness, this naturally spills over into your relationships. If you want better relationships, it will serve you then to read this book and practice self-compassion.

Related: My boyfriend yells at me but then apologizes. What should I do?

You can’t do this perfectly (and that’s ok!)

As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve made great strides when it comes to putting pressure on myself with my work. I’ve greatly embraced the idea that good enough and done is always better than perfect and never completed.

However, in my marriage, I still get greatly pained when I’m not “perfect” for my husband and disappoint him. Self-compassion is about reminding myself that marriage is work and this means I can’t be a “perfect” wife no matter how much I love my husband.

While I never will be the perfect spouse or partner, Neff highlights that self-compassionate partners are more willing to discuss relationship problems, empathize with their partner, and respect their partner than partners who aren’t self-compassionate.

I can attest to this power of self-compassion because while I sometimes disappoint or hurt my husband, I’m willing to take accountability and find resolutions together. This is because I know it’s not possible to have the perfect marriage. But what is possible is two committed people showing up with an open-heart and mind when problems arise.


If you sometimes struggle with negative self-talk and the problems associated with this including relationship problems and perfectionism, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself is an invaluable read. I appreciate Neff’s straight forward writing style while still filling this book with lots of relevant research to support the importance of developing self-compassion.

My rating for this book is a 5 out of 5 stars (or hearts). But please have patience with yourself as you read this book, and practice its steps. Truthfully, it took my years to fully read this book because I struggled with self-criticism so intensely.

However, over time the principles of being kind towards myself became much easier. Now, when I make a mistake or am in pain, my default is to self-soothe rather than to criticize myself which is a profound relief! I’m hopeful for your journey with becoming more self-compassionate should you choose to read this book!

what is self-compassion mean definition

Book citation: Neff, Kristin. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. HarperCollins.

Link to purchase: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

About The Author

Krystal Mazzola Wood, LMFT is a practicing relationship therapist with over a decade of experience. Currently, Krystal sees clients at her private practice, The Healthy Relationship Foundation. She has dedicated her entire career to empowering people to heal from unhealthy relationship processes. She does this by teaching the skills and tools necessary to have a life filled with healthy and loving relationships.

This passion led her to write her best-selling books and create courses. Her books, The Codependency Recovery Plan: A 5-Step Guide to Understand, Accept, and Break Free from the Codependent Cycle and The Codependency Workbook: Simple Practices for Developing and Maintaining Your Independence have helped many people heal.

Her third book, Therapy Within Reach: Setting Boundaries, will be released September, 2023.

If you have any personal dating or relationship questions, Krystal is happy to provide advice using her expertise and compassion. If you feel comfortable, feel free to leave any questions in the comments of this post. Otherwise, you may send an email to krystal@confidentlyauthentic.com or DM her on Instagram. Your name and any other identifying information will always be kept confidential.

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