How does self-compassion work?

How does self-compassion work? Self-compassion is learning to be kind to yourself. Instead of judging harshly and being critical towards yourself, you do the opposite. You are going to be nice to yourself. Show understanding for yourself. But to be kind and understanding to yourself, it is important to understand your self-criticism. Where does that critical and disrespectful attitude towards yourself come from?

Kristin Neff writes in her book self-compassion that your upbringing is an important part. In addition, the society in which you live is also of great influence. In her book Neff also quotes the British novelist Anthony Powell. He once wrote in one of his works: ‘Self-love seems so often unrequited’. Many people have experienced in their lives that their feelings of love remained unanswered.  That doesn’t mean that the next love remains unanswered. There comes a time when it does.

However, being nice to yourself remains very difficult for a lot of people. They don’t answer that self-love towards themselves from their heart. Instead, they judge themselves harshly and ruthlessly. Where does that lack of self-love and self-compassion come from in the first place? In the previous paragraph I already wrote that education and society are an important breeding ground.

Causes of lack of self-compassion

The main cause starts with the fact that people think they are better than others. That they score above average on a lot of things. Ask 100 people with a driver’s license if they think they are a better driver than others. The vast majority think so. That’s not true. Only 50 people can drive better than the 50 inferior drivers. So this doesn’t only apply to driving. It also applies to a lot of other things in life.

Many people also think they score much better on character traits. Especially those traits that are held in high esteem in our society. People think they are smarter, better, prettier, etc. than others. Statistically, this only applies to a small group. In addition, people only score well on a few characteristics, but rarely on all of them. So most of us are in the gray middle bracket. It’s logical that you soon get the impression that you’re not good enough. Especially when that perfect lifestyle image is so often portrayed on social media.

So if you want to be above average, but you don’t, you have a problem. Some will accept that as it is. The vast majority don’t accept that and become critical of themselves. If you criticize yourself, you often lack nuance. You are hard on yourself. There is no one who can say to you that the truth is something else after all. There is a complete lack of social censorship to get a balance in the discussion with yourself. This is not a good situation, because there is a danger that you will end up in a negative spiral. You are going to criticize yourself more and more and judge yourself negatively.

How does self -compassion vs. upbringing work?

How does self-compassion work? Chances are that someone who is self-critical has grown up with critical parents. In your childhood and your upbringing a good breeding ground can already have been laid. Your parents are critical of themselves and of you. Which automatically makes you behave critically. Extreme forms of this are parents who, for example, like to see their child become a top athlete. The criticism of parents towards themselves then focuses on the children. They have to be better than other children. So it will come as no surprise to anyone that when you grow up with critical parents, you get a lot of that too. As soon as you are an adult, you also become very critical of yourself.

How does self-compassion work - Your upbringing plays a major role

But it’s not just parents who have a big influence on you. Think of grandpa and grandma, your brother or sister, uncle or aunt. Your family’s attitude can have a big influence on you. But also at school teachers have a lot of influence on children. Think of teachers who only have an eye for the best students in the classroom. The rest of the class will certainly be disappointed. What about sports clubs where the trainer encourages children to perform better. All fuel for a critical attitude towards yourself.


Another important cause of much self-criticism is lack of appreciation. On the one hand you have critical parents. On the other hand, you have parents who rarely, if ever, give a sign of appreciation to their children. Both causes have the potential to develop a strong form of self-criticism in children. Which child does not want to hear appreciation from his/her parents. Lack of appreciation undermines trust in other people. Unconsciously there is the assumption that you will get hurt again. In addition, it creates a critical attitude towards yourself. You have come on to believe that you should indeed perform much better. If there has been a lack of appreciation in your upbringing, you will do the same yourself. Perhaps to others, but very often also to yourself. So you are going to lack self-esteem.

Lack of appreciation and an extremely critical attitude of parents, have their consequences. All kinds of nasty charactersigns can develop as a result. Think about:

  • Try to avoid criticism by perfectionism. As long as I do things perfectly, no one will criticize me. Of course you don’t have to criticize yourself.
  • Developing an exaggerated amount of self-confidence. It looks like self-confidence, but it has a very fragile basis.
  • Verbal violence towards others. By immediately looking for the attack and barking at others, there is a good chance that you won’t get any criticism. The other person already doesn’t dare to criticise.
  • The superlative of verbal violence is, of course, physical violence.

Compensation behaviour

Anger often gives man a sense of power and superiority. We can, of course, criticize others to look better. However, criticizing ourselves for our own failure is also possible. Just as you can feel elevated by attacking and belittling others. Of course you can also feel elevated above your own weak points, by judging them. That way you can build up some self-esteem again. Enough ingredients for a life full of self-criticism.

Something similar, of course, applies to perfectionism. By setting the bar very high, you strengthen your own superiority. You will feel better because you have such high standards. So where one person is critical of himself, a perfectionist will not. By scoring very high you don’t have to be critical and you mask your lack of self-esteem. If the perfectionist does not succeed, the pain is much more severe.

How self-compassion works - stop perfectionism

Compensation behavior is focused on me vs. the rest. This means that you are still able to maintain the underlying causes. Developing excessive self-confidence is not softness for yourself. It’s still about, as long as I’m better than the other person. Perfectionism is the same trait. It’s still about performance. As long as I’m better than the rest. Various studies have already shown that through self-compassion you ultimately achieve more, than by perfectionism and exaggerated self-confidence.

The solution is self-compassion

So by self-compassion, you break through the principle of me versus everyone else. Through self-compassion you put yourself much more on an equal footing with other people. The interconnectedness of ourselves with all the others is expressed much more. Actually, with self-compassion, you acknowledge that you are fallible. That you can make wrong choices and that you can regret them. Even more important, you are not the only one who does that. We all do. It creates connectedness with others, which also makes you feel more compassion towards other people.

Luckily, we’re not alone. We’re all in the same boat. Acknowledging to yourself that you’re fallible. In addition, recognizing that others are fallible, creates an enormous bond. There will be a sense of togetherness. Simply because everyone will develop more compassion for the other. Which in turn is a direct consequence of more self-compassion.

All international studies show that self-compassion prevents many mental problems. People who have more compassion for themselves are healthier. They have much less chance of stress, depression or burn-out. So less self-confidence and perfectionism, but more self-compassion. Self-confidence in itself is not a bad thing. As long as self-compassion and self-confidence go hand in hand, are balanced, there is nothing wrong. However, we often see that more self-confidence means less compassion for yourself.

Everything has a reason

Things in the world go the way they go. The universe always has a very good reason for that. Sometimes setbacks come your way so that as a human being, as a soul, you can learn from them. That really happens to everyone. No one is immune from adversity. Once people realize that it is perfectly normal to have problems and face challenges. From then on it is a lot easier for them to get over the disappointment, that they did not have a ‘normal’ situation. A bit of insight and mental strength has formed in you. That mental strength is not I-centric. That power is mainly we-oriented. It is a power to deal with disappointments and setbacks.

By gaining more insight into why this self-criticism arose, it also becomes easier to solve the problem. Also read this blog about ‘what is self-compassion‘.

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