Self-Compassion: What Is Compassion?

Self-Compassion: What Is Compassion?

This blog was written by Hina Wain, a therapist in training who interned at Centered Therapy Chicago this past year.

As a South Asian in North America, I have always been curious about the meeting of Eastern ideas and Western inquiry. May, as you may know, has been named as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) heritage month. I would like to continue the focus on AANHPI heritage and culture to offer reflections on the growing interest in Eastern ideas from a Western lens within the field of psychology in this four-part blog series. 

  1. What is compassion? 
  2. Self-Compassion and Radical Bravery 
  3. Self-Compassion Across Cultures 
  4. Why is Self-Compassion Worth It & Key Takeaways

Mindfulness and self-compassion are concepts with Asian origins that have raised interesting questions about how self-compassion may be understood among Asian societies or collectivist cultures in contrast to the West. 


Part 1: What is compassion?

Compassion can be understood as one’s ability to recognize pain, acknowledge its universal nature, and then regard this pain with empathy and kindness in return. Self-compassion is therefore, the practice of compassion directed inwards towards ourselves. 

Kristen Neff is one of the most prominent researchers of self-compassion and she has found that self-compassion is comprised of the following three aspects. 

  • self-kindness: an extension of kindness and understanding offered to oneself as opposed to hurtful judgement and self-criticism; 
  • common humanity: recognizing one’s existence and experiences as part of a shared humanity as opposed to isolation; and 
  • mindfulness: balancing one’s own pain in mindful awareness as opposed to overidentification with the suffering.

For some, compassion comes easily. It can look like the hug we instinctively give to a partner after a difficult day at work or the tears we share when we witness another life lost to community violence or suicide. Compassion is that call to action that moves us to volunteer our time or donate what we can in response to catastrophes across the world. Moving with compassion in response to another’s suffering may feel natural, while compassion directed towards the self may be more difficult.

The inner critic may whisper, “I hate that I’m still sick. I really should have recovered and gotten back to work by now. I’m the worst employee.” The compassionate self may reply, “my body is not feeling its best right now. I deserve to rest. Everyone gets sick at some point.”

Self-compassion is an opportunity to offer ourselves the grace and understanding we readily give to others if we are willing to receive it. Part two of this series will offer considerations about what may get in the way of extending compassion towards ourselves.