What is Self-Compassion, Why does it matter and How do I get it?


We’ve all been there—those moments when we think, “I’m so dumb,” “I’m terrible at this,” or “I should have never tried in the first place”. So many of us struggle to battle self-criticism. The mind has a way of leading us down the path of self-criticism, often fueled by negative thinking patterns that arise in response to our own actions or perceived failures. We act and feel that we’ve failed, and we think “I’m such a loser,” or we replay negative memories of things we have done or could have done differently.

Negative thinking patterns creep into our minds, unwanted, wreaking havoc with our self-perception. When we internalize these negative beliefs, they morph into part of our identity. Negative beliefs impact how we view ourselves. Those seemingly harmless phrases like “I’m so dumb” can build up over time, leading to feelings of inadequacy and limiting our potential. The inner critic can manifest in various forms, often leaving us feeling stuck and incapable of progress.

These thinking patterns and negative self-criticism can have terrible mental health consequences: Studies show that people experiencing depression and anxiety have lower stress tolerance, less life satisfaction, reduced happiness, less resilience, an inability to tolerate difficult relationships and situations, and aversion to taking initiative and risks.

Learning to be kind to ourselves can greatly enhance our mental and emotional health.

The Roots of Self-Criticism: Tracing Childhood Experiences

Self-criticism often has its origins in our childhood experiences. As we grow and navigate the world, interactions with family, peers, and societal influences shape the lens through which we view ourselves.

Children are impressionable, absorbing feedback from their environment. Harsh criticism, unrealistic expectations, or comparisons with others can foster an inner critic that persists into adulthood. Additionally, parental attitudes towards mistakes and failures play a pivotal role. Children internalize these reactions, and they learn to be unforgiving to themselves.

Moreover, peer dynamics and societal ideals contribute to self-image. For example, being teased, excluded, or bullied can ingrain feelings of inadequacy. Unrealistic portrayals in media further cultivate unrealistic self-expectations.

So what can I do about it?

Fortunately, we can break the cycle and foster a more positive relationship with ourselves. There’s a powerful antidote to this self-inflicted negativity: self-compassion.

Here are some Practical Steps to Foster Self-Compassion

  1. Mindfulness: Begin by cultivating mindfulness. When negative thoughts arise, acknowledge them without judgment. Simply observe them as passing clouds in the sky of your mind.
  2. Self-Kindness: Treat yourself with kindness and empathy. Speak to yourself as you would to a friend. Replace self-criticism with supportive and nurturing words.
  3. Common Humanity: Remember that you’re not alone in facing challenges. Everyone experiences setbacks and struggles. Embrace your common humanity and acknowledge that imperfection is a shared human experience.

Here’s an exercise you can do that can help foster self-compassion.

The Friend Test: A Reality Check

Consider this: If a friend were in the same situation as you, would you respond with the same harshness you use on yourself? Chances are, probably not. We often reserve our kindness, empathy, and understanding for others, while being exceedingly tough on ourselves. This realization serves as a reality check, highlighting the discrepancy between how we treat ourselves and how we treat those around us.

Imagine extending the same level of understanding and support to yourself that you offer to a friend. This shift in perspective can be transformative. Instead of berating yourself with harsh and cruel words, adopt a more self-compassionate approach. Treat yourself with the same gentleness and patience that you would offer to a loved one facing a challenge.

Imagine if you could turn that critical voice into one of support and encouragement, just as you would with a friend. Shifting towards self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and empathy you offer to others. Instead of harsh words, replace them with gentle and supportive thoughts. This shift can make a world of difference in your self-esteem and overall outlook on life.

A Journey from Self-Doubt to Success: The Power of Self-Compassion

Here’s a story of someone who overcame his self-doubt and was able to finally actualize his potential.

Mark has a keen eye for design and a dream of starting his own graphic design business. However, his self-doubt was a constant companion. Whenever he contemplated launching his venture, Mark was bombarded by negative thoughts: “I’m not skilled enough,” “No one will take me seriously,” and “I’ll probably fail.”

Mark’s self-criticism paralyzed him. Despite his talent, he found himself stuck in a cycle of hesitation and fear. He knew that he needed to break free from this pattern if he ever hoped to pursue his dream.

The Turning Point: Discovering Self-Compassion

Mark knew he had great potential and could be very successful but couldn’t get himself to take the leap to start his dream business. The negative self-talk held him back. One day he got so frustrated he decided to go to therapy to see if he could get past his block. In therapy he began to recognize his limited belief thought patterns and how debilitating they were on his progress. He learned about self-compassion.

The Journey: Cultivating Self-Compassion

Mark embarked on a journey to cultivate self-compassion. He began by catching his negative thoughts and countering them with more empathetic and supportive ones. Whenever his inner critic said, “You’re not skilled enough,” Mark would respond, “I have the talent and the drive to learn and improve.”

Mark also practiced mindfulness, becoming more aware of his emotions without judgment. This allowed him to detach from his self-critical thoughts and see his strengths and abilities with clarity.

The Transformation: Building Confidence

As Mark consistently practiced developing self-compassion, he noticed a shift in his self-esteem and outlook. He began to see himself in a new light—a light that illuminated his potential and possibilities. Slowly, the weight of self-doubt began to lift, and in its place, confidence emerged.

The Success: Launching the Business

Mark decided it was time to take the plunge and start his own graphic design business. Armed with the belief in his abilities and the practice of self-compassion, he launched his venture with enthusiasm and determination.

Mark’s business journey wasn’t without challenges, but his self-compassion became his anchor during difficult times. When faced with setbacks, he didn’t berate himself. Instead, he reminded himself that failure was a part of any journey and that he was learning and growing with every experience.

Mark’s business started gaining traction. His unique designs and personalized approach began attracting clients, and his reputation began to spread. His ability to handle stress and setbacks with self-compassion made all the difference in how he navigated the challenges of entrepreneurship.

Conclusion: The Power of Self-Compassion

Mark’s story highlights the incredible transformation that can occur when we shift from self-criticism to self-compassion. By treating himself with kindness and understanding, Mark conquered his self-doubt and stepped into a realm of confidence and success. The journey wasn’t easy, but Mark’s commitment to practicing self-compassion allowed him to overcome obstacles and turn his dream into a reality.

So, the next time you find yourself caught in a web of self-criticism, remember Mark’s journey. Embrace self-compassion as a tool for growth and transformation. Just like Mark, you too can rewrite your narrative and unlock your true potential.

Dr. Aryeh Berlin is a New Jersey licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Aspire Psychological Group. Dr. Berlin has vast clinical training experiences including a residential adolescent addiction treatment center in Israel, community mental health centers, and youth detention centers. Dr. Berlin has lectured on parenting children with emotional and behavioral difficulties, child development, helping children with school-related challenges and trauma. Audiences included attorneys, mental health professionals, parents, and educators.