Self-Compassion & Health

Buddha statue holding lotus flower.

Your sister lost her job and feels like a failure. You assure her she’s not. A friend tells you someone cut him off in traffic, sending him into a rage, and now he feels awful.  “It happens to the best of us,” you say. But when these things happen to you? You beat yourself up.

When you show people compassion, you know they’ll feel better. Do that for yourself and you will, too. You will also improve your physical and emotional well-being.

What Does it Mean to be Self-Compassionate?

It’s not easy to be self-compassionate. Our culture tells us that being kind to yourself is weak, self-indulgent, and self-pitying. When it comes to self-motivation, we’re taught that the stick is better than the carrot.

If you’re a woman, you likely “learned to focus more on others, and that it’s selfish to focus on yourself,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, the author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.

Self-compassion doesn’t mean you don’t take responsibility for your actions, or that you forget other people have problems too. Self-compassion simply means caring about—and having compassion for—yourself.

Then your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and cortisol and other stress hormones kick in. Not good.

Learning Self-Compassion

When going through a hard time, Dr. Neff recommends imagining “what you would say to a friend or what they would say to you. Try it on yourself.” Writing about your feelings or meditating can help build self-compassion.

Being self-compassionate calms the sympathetic nervous system—that fight, flight, or freeze reaction. You can further calm yourself by placing your hand over your chest. Doing so releases oxytocin in your body, which soothes and comforts.

Being kind to yourself leads to positive states of mind (optimism, happiness, self-confidence), which balance negative reactions (depression, anxiety, shame). Self-compassion may not make all your pain go away. But it will help you cope with difficult emotions.

Click to See Our Sources

“The 5 Myths of Self-Compassion: What Keeps Us from Being Kinder to Ourselves?” by Kristin Neff,, 9—10/18

“Definition of Self-Compassion”; “Tips for Practice” by Kristin Neff,, 2018 

Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology edited by Todd Kashdan and Joseph Ciarrochi ($49.95, New Harbinger Publications, 2013)

Personal communication: Kristin Neff, 4/18

“The Scientific Benefits of Self-Compassion” by Emma Seppala, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University, 5/8/14


Claire Sykes

Claire Sykes is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

She loves that she's always learning about something new, and gets to talk with a wide variety of people, often at such an extent or depth.