For Sensitive People, Self-Compassion Is the Most Radical Act of All

Image of the definition of self compassion, which reads: Self compassion is the act of taking your desire to alleviate suffering and turning it inward, toward yourself.

Nothing is more powerful than the act of turning your love inward, toward yourself.

If asked to describe the quintessential traits of any highly sensitive person (HSP), undoubtedly, “compassion” would be at the forefront. Indeed, HSPs are known for our kind and empathetic dispositions. Being emotional sponges, we literally feel what others feel, making compassion second nature to us.

However, for most of us, it’s much easier to exhibit compassion toward others than it is toward ourselves. We live in a world that largely promotes perfectionism and self-judgment, which is the perfect recipe to cultivate the voice of our inner critic (although, according to our inner critic, we’re probably not following the recipe correctly). Unsurprisingly, this can result in feelings of shame and inadequacy, which can subsequently lead to mental health struggles, including depression, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse

When faced with such issues (or really, with any challenge associated with living in this world), self-compassion can be a powerful remedy, especially for HSPs. As a psychotherapist, I encourage my clients to cultivate self-compassion for this reason.

What is Self-Compassion? 

Self-compassion is the act of taking your desire to alleviate suffering and turning it inward toward yourself.
In her book Self-Compassion, prominent research psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff says that self-compassion consists of three key elements: (1) self-kindness; (2) common humanity; and (3) mindfulness

Self-kindness is when we treat ourselves with the same benevolence we would a friend, as opposed to harshly castigating ourselves. This is the opposite of our inner critic, which is that internal negative voice that berates us and tells us we’re no good. When experiencing a difficult moment, self-kindness could look like telling yourself, “I’m sorry you’re hurting right now. You’re not wrong for feeling this way. You’re trying your best.”    

Common humanity is holding in mind that certain life experiences are universal, or at least well-understood by many others. Knowing this can help us feel less alone and alienated in our suffering. 

Finally, mindfulness is often defined as nonjudgmental present awareness. When we are mindful of our current experience, we can better assess how we are feeling and what it is we need, i.e., how we can best show compassion toward ourselves without overidentifying with, or repressing, our emotional experience.

Now that we have a better understanding of what self-compassion is, let’s discuss what self-compassion is not. Neff highlights that self-compassion is not self-pity or a woe-is-me kind of attitude. While self-compassion holds the difficulties we may be facing with empathy, its emphasis on common humanity helps to ground our suffering as a shared experience, rather than considering our suffering to be unique and greater-than. 

Further, Neff stresses that self-compassion is not self-indulgence, in which we make excuses for ourselves. A fear of implementing self-compassion is the risk of becoming lazy or stagnant. However, having no motivation or goals for oneself is not kind, as that would prevent us from becoming our best selves. In fact, research indicates that individuals who have self-compassion set goals that are just as high for themselves as those who are lacking self-compassion — but are less tough on themselves when their goals are not met. 

How is Self-Compassion Different than Self-Esteem?

Self-compassion is not one and the same with self-esteem; the two have important differences. 

First, by its definition, self-esteem requires us to believe that we are superior at something, as the esteem comes from being better than average. However, it’s mathematically impossible for all of us to always be superior, meaning we may be prone to delusion about some of our abilities in comparison to others; this is known as the self-enhancement bias. 

Second, other findings indicate that self-esteem is resistant to change, which is why most programs designed to bolster self-esteem don’t actually result in a significant improvement. At the same time, self-esteem can be very fragile to external events, fluctuating depending on whether or not our outcome was a success or failure. 

Finally, too much self-esteem can have negative consequences, leading to behaviors and attitudes related to narcissism, anger, aggression, and prejudice. Unsurprisingly, this type of unhealthy self-esteem can also lead to defensiveness when given constructive criticism, as well as being less likely to take personal responsibility when appropriate.

Although there is no denying that self-esteem is correlated with achievement, evidence suggests that achievement causes high self-esteem, not the other way around. Additionally, many of the positive outcomes, such as happiness, optimism, and having a positive disposition, associated with having high self-esteem, are equally as associated with having self-compassion.

Because self-esteem is a state of mind, it is difficult to “fake it until we make it,” especially for HSPs, who are highly attuned to authenticity. The fact of the matter is, sometimes there will be things we’re just not good at, or we mess up, and that’s okay. 

For example, let’s say that you are a student and value achievement; you typically perform well in school and receive good grades. However, you did poorly on your latest exam. When operating through the lens of self-esteem, there could be a few different outcomes: since this grade is at odds with what your self-esteem informs you about your self-image (i.e., that you are superior in intellect), you could argue with your teacher or professor that they made an error in grading. However, this would be denying the reality of your current situation, instead passing the blame. You could also take this one passing grade to mean that your intellect is not as superior as you believed it to be, that perhaps you are actually stupid, ruminating on your poor grade, letting your self-esteem take a blow since it is reliant on your achievements. 

Conversely, if operating from a lens of self-compassion, you might first comfort yourself for the difficult emotions you’re experiencing (“It makes sense that I’m feeling upset right now; getting good grades is important to me”), validate and make sense of the occasion while also putting it into the greater context (“This isn’t like me to get this type of grade, but it was a particularly difficult test and I didn’t study as much as would’ve been beneficial”), and identify what it is you need to move forward (“I will speak to my teacher about the questions I missed and make sure to study more next time”). 

Self-compassion relies on action, i.e., how we speak to and care for ourselves, rather than a belief. This means you don’t have to fake anything like you might with self-esteem. In my experience, both personally and with my clients in psychotherapy, I have found self-compassion to be an easier pill to swallow than self-esteem.

In a recent qualitative study that interviewed HSPs, all participants cited self-compassion as a contributor to their overall well-being. Indeed, self-compassion has several benefits across multiple domains, as described in further detail below.

5 Ways Self-Compassion is Revolutionary for Sensitive People

1. Self-compassion protects us against negative mental health outcomes.

According to research studies, self-compassion appears to help prevent or reduce negative mental health outcomes. For example, self-compassion can lead to lower levels of difficult emotions (such as sadness, stress, etc.). Similarly, self-compassion reduces the likelihood of ruminating over negative or stressful social events, diminishes our engagement in perfectionism, and reduces our fear of failure, lessens our stress when our ego feels threatened, and can help people cope with adverse experiences. 

Moreover, self-compassion is inversely associated with mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, stress, body shame and dissatisfaction, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidality, and psychopathology in general. This is likely due to self-compassion’s ability to reduce our feelings of inadequacy, as well as our tendency to self-criticize, both of which are related to the development of mental health issues. 

Further, self-compassion leads to greater distress tolerance via the ability to distance ourselves from our negative thoughts, and can even promote psychological healing and growth after traumatic events. This is especially important to HSPs, since, according to Dr. Elaine Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, HSPs who experience difficult or adverse events while growing up are more vulnerable to developing mental health struggles later in life.

2. Self-compassion promotes psychological well-being.

Self-compassion doesn’t only prevent negative mental health outcomes; it goes above and beyond by promoting positive mental health and increasing psychological well-being. Indeed, having greater levels of self-compassion is associated with greater subjective happiness and joy, optimism, gratitude, emotional intelligence, personal initiative, curiosity, intellectual flexibility, social connectedness, positive emotionality, and life satisfaction. 

There appears to be several reasons for these outcomes. First, self-compassion is related to having greater psychological resilience in which we experience less extreme emotional reactions and less difficult emotions, experience more acceptance, are better able to take an objective and healthy perspective, and can acknowledge our own responsibility. Second, self-compassion can lead to greater emotional flexibility, which allows us to respond to experiences in emotionally appropriate ways and return to our baseline mood within a reasonable amount of time. Finally, self-compassion promotes our ability to validate our emotional experience without trying to suppress our unwanted thoughts or emotions, ultimately letting us work through our emotions more effectively and providing the foundation for a healthier relationship with our emotions. According to Dr. Aron, HSPs tend to thrive more so than non-HSPs when we have this positive psychological foundation.

3. Self-compassion promotes interpersonal well-being.

Self-compassion can lead to better and healthier relationships with others. Research has found this to be true for both romantic partnerships and friendships, in addition to making conflict situations more successfully dealt with. This is likely due to self-compassion’s promotion of authenticity, as well as the greater likelihood of apologizing and repairing when necessary. This is imperative since supportive relationships are crucial for the overall well-being of HSPs.

4. Self-compassion promotes healthier habits.

Self-compassion has been shown to be related to health-promoting behaviors. Studies indicate that self-compassion helps to increase movement and nourishing eating while decreasing smoking. When we are kind to ourselves instead of beating ourselves up and considering ourselves to be a failure, it’s easier to bounce back after a setback instead of giving up. 

Additionally, self-compassion is associated with a greater sense of autonomy, competence, and self-determination. And it is also related to greater personal initiative, the desire to reach one’s full potential, less motivational anxiety, and less procrastination. This is believed to be so because self-compassion focuses on mastery goals (i.e., mastering an objective for the intrinsic reward) over performance goals (i.e., being able to perform an objective well for the extrinsic rewards).

5. Self-compassion promotes optimal self-care.

By now, most of us know how vital it is to engage in self-care. Especially as HSPs, we are more susceptible to our cup running low and feel it more deeply when we approach a state of burnout. Thankfully, self-compassion helps to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue. In an interview discussing her new book Fierce Self-Compassion, Neff describes how fierce self-compassion is action-oriented, along with its three components: providing for our needs, protection, and motivation. 

Providing for our needs looks like prioritizing whatever it is we need in that moment (even if it means saying no to others), protection looks like setting boundaries, and motivation means changing and improving our behaviors when the time calls for it (while also accepting ourselves unconditionally). This is a recipe for optimal self-care, as we are listening to ourselves and taking the necessary action(s). 

Research shows that self-compassion is not a dispositional trait, but rather, can be learned. This means that self-compassion is accessible to everyone. In the next section, you’ll find some ways you can bolster self-compassion.

7 Ways HSPs Can Build Self-Compassion

1. Create a self-compassion mantra. 

Neff recommends creating a self-compassion mantra to recite during difficult times. Unlike most mantras, this is not a phrase you don’t believe to recite with the purpose of making you believe it. For many HSPs, who value authenticity, this can actually make us feel worse.

Instead, the purpose of this mantra is to recognize the reality (and normalcy) of suffering and to provide comfort. The mantra should include all three aspects of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness. Neff’s personal mantra is: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.” 

Mine is: “This is a moment of suffering and hurt. My pain is valid and I am not alone in my suffering. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I be gentle and understanding with myself; may I give myself the compassion I need.” 

Feel free to use either of these as the basis for your mantra, or create your own. 

2. Learn a loving-kindness meditation.

Loving-kindness is a type of meditation in which you silently repeat a series of phrases to yourself to promote a sense of warmth and friendliness toward the recipient of these phrases. Typically, you start with yourself, then someone with whom you have a positive relationship (e.g., partner, family member, friend, chosen family, companion animal, etc.), a neutral other (i.e., an acquaintance), someone you have a more difficult relationship with (not so difficult that this retraumatizes you, but difficult enough to be complicated), and, finally, all beings. 

The phrases you recite are: “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be at peace. May I live with ease.” Some prefer to use the phrases: “May I be safe” and/or “May I be free from suffering.” Find which phrases resonate with you. If you prefer a guided meditation, Insight Timer is a free app that has many loving-kindness meditations to choose from, including by Neff herself.

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3. Identify your inner critic and inner best friend.

We all have multiple narratives running through our mind. Some of these are harsh and cruel, while others are kinder and comforting. The former can be considered our inner critic, while the latter can be considered our inner best friend. By identifying our internal narratives as these roles, this helps us to make sense of our inner dialogue, create distance between ourselves and shame (and other such negativity), and cultivate greater compassion for ourselves. This compassion can also be extended toward the inner critic, as there is a purpose behind this narrative that is rooted in past trauma; it is trying to be helpful, but is no longer succeeding in doing so. 

Additionally, when we have a name for our inner critic, we can more easily ask them to be silent; similarly, we can ask our inner best friend to speak up more frequently. Naming these parts of yourself can be as simple as “inner critic” and “inner best friend,” “good” and “bad,” “positive” and negative,” or you could even give them a human name, one that symbolizes their respective narratives. The dialogue between your inner critic and inner best friend would also be a good subject to explore in therapy.

4. Write a love letter to yourself. 

Another exercise recommended by Neff is to write a compassionate letter to ourselves. She instructs us to first mindfully identify an aspect about ourselves (or issue we’ve been dealing with) that has resulted in difficult emotions or caused our inner critic to get fired up. 

Next, we access our inner best friend, and write a letter to ourselves from their point of view about said aspect or issue. How might your inner best friend approach this from a compassionate stance? How do they feel about what you are experiencing and the distress it’s causing you? Do they see you in a different light, or are they able to realize that you are only human and inherently worthy? What words of encouragement do they have for you? 

After writing the letter, take some time before re-reading it so that when you do return to it, the words can sink in. Revisit it as often as needed.

5. Engage in self-care and boundary-setting.

This is the action aspect, the fierce self-compassion, as Neff refers to it. To truly show ourselves compassion, we need to care for ourselves as we would a loved one. This will likely involve the self-care basics, including getting enough sleep, nourishing yourself with food and water, moving your body, finding social support, and participating in activities that relax you and bring you joy. Additionally, this looks like setting boundaries — saying no to activities that will deplete your battery, letting others know that you will not tolerate being treated poorly, and so forth. Setting boundaries isn’t necessarily easy, but essential for self-care.

6. Ask yourself validating questions.

For most of us, there is a clear history that has led us to develop certain insecurities or pain points. If we can lovingly keep this in mind when we’re currently experiencing pain, this can help us work through our pain in a more self-compassionate manner. As such, there are certain questions we can ask ourselves to bring our experiences to this light, thus validating our pain. 

First, we can ask ourselves: “Knowing what I do about myself (including my trauma/pain history, everything that has happened to me), does it make sense that I would be struggling with this? Does it make sense that I would be feeling this way?” Almost always, the answer will be yes. Assuming the answer is in the affirmative, we can then follow up with the question: “Given that it makes sense, what would be helpful in this moment?” By asking ourselves these questions, we can validate our struggle with compassion while also identifying how we can move forward.

7. Seek out psychotherapy to help you heal.

I admit I may be biased here, but I truly do believe that psychotherapy is one of the most beneficial tools HSPs have for our healing. Sometimes, our inner critic is so second nature to us that it can be difficult to determine when our internal dialogue is lacking self-compassion. Therefore, when you verbalize your inner narrative with a mental health professional, they may be able to point out when you are engaging in self-judgment that you otherwise would not notice. 

Additionally, your therapist can help you explore the origins and purpose of your inner critic, which can subsequently help when trying to quiet this narrative. Plus, they should be able to help you address, and move past, any potential roadblocks keeping you from embracing self-compassion. Before settling on one, I’d recommend asking them if they are knowledgeable in promoting self-compassion. That way, you can optimize your time together.

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