What is “self compassion” and why is it essential?

For many years, teachers and parents have been concerned about self-esteem and have looked at ways to increase children’s feelings of their own abilities, potential, and worth as human beings.

However, focusing on self-esteem doesn’t always help in the long run, and it can even push some individuals into the dangerous territory of narcissism.

A better approach that seems to have positive short and long-term benefits – both for our children and for ourselves – is to focus on self-compassion.

Kristen Neff, PhD, an expert in the field of self-compassion who has done decades of research into its importance, defines self compassion as having three components:  1)  self kindness verses self-judgement, 2)  a sense of common humanity versus isolation and 3) mindfulness versus over-identification when confronting painful thoughts and emotions. (Neff and Germer, 2012).

Strengthening self-compassion can lead to increased feelings of hope, optimism, and emotional resilience and can reduce depression, anxiety, and perfectionism.

For parents of traumatized children, using these practices ourselves will help us to cope with the overwhelming feelings of frustration and hopelessness that can come with the challenges we face as parents.  We can also model these practices and teach them to our children so that they can develop deeper self-compassion and overcome the anxiety and depression that often come with complex developmental trauma.

There are many different ways to practice self-compassion, but here is an exercise that Dr. Neff recommends for those in a crisis situation.  It may seem simple, but it is also very powerful and can help us to self-regulate so that we can then in turn help our children to regulate and develop stronger trust and attachment.

Self Compassion Break
Think of a situation in your life that is difficult, that is causing you stress. Call the situation to mind, and see if you can actually feel the stress and emotional discomfort in your body.

Now, say to yourself:

1. This is a moment of suffering

That’s mindfulness. Other options include:

  • This hurts.
  • Ouch.
  • This is stress.

2. Suffering is a part of life

That’s common humanity. Other options include:

  • Other people feel this way.
  • I’m not alone.
  • We all struggle in our lives.

Now, put your hands over your heart, feel the warmth of your hands and the gentle touch of your hands on your chest. Or adopt the soothing touch you discovered felt right for you.

Say to yourself:

3. May I be kind to myself

You can also ask yourself, “What do I need to hear right now to express kindness to myself?” Is there a phrase that speaks to you in your particular situation, such as:

  • May I give myself the compassion that I need
  • May I learn to accept myself as I am
  • May I forgive myself
  • May I be strong.
  • May I be patient

This practice can be used any time of day or night, and will help you remember to evoke the three aspects of self-compassion when you need it most.

Self-compassion is a critical element of self-care.   We need to remember that parenting is hard work even under the best circumstances, and as parents of children with complex trauma, we will be faced with extreme parenting challenges on a regular basis.

By accepting that these challenges are part of the journey and having compassion towards ourselves rather than self-pity for how difficult it is, or guilt for not doing enough, we can choose strength and hope over despair.

When we show our kids that we love and care for ourselves, they will learn a powerful lesson in how to love and care for themselves, too.


Neff, Kristin D.; Germer, Christopher K. (2012-01-01). “A Pilot Study and Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mindful Self-Compassion Program”. Journal of Clinical Psychology69 (1): 28–44. PMID 23070875. doi:10.1002/jclp.21923.

Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion Website:  www.self-compassion.org 

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