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Overcoming Barriers to Self-Compassion

Everyone has their own story about compassion: what it means to them, how they express it, their fears about it. Indeed, the words “compassion” and “self-compassion” can lead to strong and differing reactions:

different responses to the concept of self-compassion

Understanding the story behind these responses is a key part of developing new, kinder ways of relating to ourselves and others. If we dig a little deeper, we might come across the following common barriers to giving and/or receiving compassion:

  • “I don't deserve it - I'm worthless”.

  • “Someone being kind to me means I’m soft or weak. It’s patronising.”

  • “Being kind to myself will lead to me losing self-control.”

  • "The only way I can learn is through beating myself up.”

  • “It's wrong to have a pity party: "Oh poor me!" That won’t get me anywhere.”

  • "Other people suffer much more than I do”.

  • “It's selfish to focus on what I need”.

  • "Kindness means getting in touch with my pain. It would overwhelm me."

Some of these are based on a false understanding of what compassion is, and what it isn't.


What compassion is:

Although there are different definitions of compassion, the one underpinning most research and clinical work is that of Paul Gilbert, who defines compassion as "a sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it". This suggests compassion has two main components:

Sensitivity/empathy/understanding/willingness to come alongside the sufferer


Acting in a helpful way to try to make things better

The action component of compassion is vital. Compassion is not just "words" and a kind feeling.

A compassionate doctor does not just stand at the bedside, empathising with the bleeding patient. ("Gosh, that's a lot of blood. It must hurt a lot.") They also attend to the wound.

A compassionate teacher does not just empathise with the student's struggle to understand a concept. ("Ah yes, I used to find this hard too when I was at school.") They take time to patiently come alongside and explain, so that the student learns.

A compassionate firefighter does not just stand at the scene and express great sadness for those burning in the house. ("I'm so sorry - this looks terrible. Your whole house is burning up. How awful.") Instead they risk their own safety to put out the fire.

So, when we are thinking about compassion to ourselves, it's important to bear in mind that we are not just thinking of a few kind words. Compassion also involves action; being committed to a good outcome; keeping the big picture, and long-term goals in mind.

What compassion isn't:

Compassion is not soft, silly or weak. If compassion means engaging actively with the suffering of yourself or another, it requires strength and courage.

Compassion is not something that you earn through good behaviour or virtue. The definition given above was not "A sensitivity to the suffering of those who are faultless, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it."

What draws compassion out of someone, is simply that the person before them is suffering. Compassion is a human response to pain. If you are suffering, then compassion is the natural, most helpful response, regardless of who you are and what you've done.

Compassion is not limited to the most deserving. The fact that other people suffer does not mean that they should get all the compassion and there's none left for you. The fact that there is enormous suffering in the world does not diminish the reality of your pain and your need for care and hope.

Compassion is not the same as self-indulgence. Kristin Neff has written extensively on this subject and it's a really important distinction. With self-indulgence, we are focusing on short-term pleasure but ignoring long-term goals and values. With self-compassion, we keep our long-term goals and values in mind. We don't just cave in and do what we feel like in the moment.

Compassion is not the same as self-pity. With self pity, the focus is all on us, and our suffering. We may exaggerate our pain, and lose both hope and perspective. With self-compassion, we connect with the reality that we are not alone: that others are suffering too, that we are all flawed, and that this is part of the human condition. We don't wallow: we are prepared to think about helpful action.


Understanding more about what compassion is and isn’t, allows us to respond to the barriers to self-compassion listed above.

  • "I don't deserve it - I'm worthless".

Are you suffering? Then you "deserve" compassion.

  • "It's soft and silly. It's patronising".

Compassion involves strength and courage.

  • "Being kind to myself will lead to me losing self-control".

Compassion is not the same as self-indulgence. It keeps your long-term goals in mind. You can be kind to yourself without losing self-control.

  • "The only way I can learn is through harsh self-criticism".

Try speaking kindly to yourself while also keeping your learning goals in mind.

  • "It's wrong to have a pity party. "Oh poor me!"

Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity.

  • "Other people suffer much more than I do."

This may be true, but it doesn't diminish your suffering, or take away your need for compassion.

  • It's wrong to focus on what I need".

Where did you learn that your needs are not important? What do you worry will happen if you focus on your needs? Your needs and feelings are important.

  • "Kindness means getting in touch with my pain, and I don't want to do that. It would overwhelm me".

Your "walls" are there for a reason. Getting in touch with pain and allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be scary. That's why compassion involves strength and courage. But if you know that there is a kind response ready to meet your vulnerability, it is less scary. It may take a lot of time for you to trust that it's safe enough to be vulnerable - and that's OK. Going slowly and taking small steps will make things less overwhelming.



Reading through this post, which barriers to self-compassion do you most identify with?

How did you come to feel this way? (There will be good reasons).

Next time you notice yourself resisting self-compassion, see if you can overcome the resistance, and experiment with a kinder response.

What compassion is and isn't


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