The Importance of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion, a construct developed by Dr. Kristin Neff, is the act of being kind to oneself, maintaining presence and curiosity, and having an understanding of common humanity. Simply speaking, self-compassion is the act of treating yourself the way you would treat someone you love. Picture a close friend or family member who is going through a rough time with something. How would you respond to them?
The reason this concept is being talked about and researched is because so many of us are hard on ourselves. How often do you find yourself saying, “I shouldn’t have done that!” “I’m so dumb.” A large percentage of people tend to talk down to themselves and be self-critical. Self-compassion counteracts the negative self-talk that most individuals engage in and creates a healthier internal atmosphere. Studies have found that individuals with self-compassion report higher levels of psychological well-being, happiness, and healthier relationships while also reporting lower levels of depression.
I recently came across an article that studied the impact higher levels of self-compassion have on parents of children with autism. These studies found that parents of children who have autism experience more depression, lower quality of life, and higher parental stress in comparison to parents of neurotypical children. Another factor impacting parental well-being is the shame often experienced by parents of children with autism for not being able to “control” their child. Many parents express that others do not understand the developmental and sensory difficulties some children struggle with, and in turn, don’t understand the challenges of parenting a child with autism. There is a sense of judgment that is often felt, and it is hard not to internalize that judgment. Additionally, parents of children with autism experience guilt for not doing enough for their child or possibly blame themselves for their child’s developmental difficulties. Neff & Faso found that Self-compassion in parents of children who have autism was positively associated with life satisfaction, hope, and goal reengagement and negatively associated with depression and parental distress.
Additionally, in this study, self-compassion predicted parental well-being more so than symptom severity of the parent’s child. This means that no matter the level of functioning a child has, a parent’s level of stress is improved by having self-compassion. This research study highlights the importance of cultivating self-compassion when we are parenting or working with a child who has autism. As many of you know, various challenges must be worked through and processed to maintain our psychological well-being and, in the long run, the psychological well-being of our children.
The more psychologically healthy the adults around a child are the more modeling that child has for appropriate ways of self-relating, resulting in a healthier child!
I worked with a 4-year-old girl who had intense tantrums that were often hard to work through. One day, she was upset because it was too dark to go outside so she threw a heavy plastic toy at my face and I lost my patience and said “No!” in a harsh tone that surprised both of us. Usually, my response to her tantrums was calm and soothing. However, this response caused her to have an even more intense outburst and caused me to feel so dumb for not being able to contain her. The dynamic of our interaction at that moment was incredibly hard to recover from. I spent the remainder of our time together, trying to calm her down. I drove home that night, feeling defeated and upset with myself. I said things like, “I shouldn’t have reacted so strongly…I’m better than that” “That was the worst time to lose my patience.” “I’m a terrible therapist.” At the moment, it felt like that is what I deserved; I made this 4-year-old’s night harder than it needed to be by not being attuned to her, and in turn, I should punish myself. However, when I take a step back and apply the concept of self-compassion, I can see that I was incredibly tired and distressed in that situation. Instead of saying, “I shouldn’t have done that!” and scolding myself the whole way home. I could say, “that was a really hard session, normally I wouldn’t have lost my patience.” Engaging in a more compassionate way allows the space for self-soothing and easier recovery. I can then begin to problem solve and say, “how could I have reacted differently?” or “how will I approach her next time so that we can work through this together?” These responses not only feel better to me; they are also more productive to my relationship with this young girl.
Self-compassion fosters the space for mistakes but also accelerates one’s recovery from mistakes and allows individuals to learn.
The concept of self-compassion can play a healing role in this lifelong journey of parenting that can, in turn, benefit a parent’s self-perception as well as a child’s healthy development of self. Let’s challenge ourselves to be self-compassionate today when we feel overwhelmed, stressed, or worried.
The act of loving ourselves and treating ourselves with kindness will enable us to stay present, self-soothe, and model for our children how to love themselves with their strengths and, more importantly, with an acceptance of their weaknesses.
If you would like to learn more about Self-Compassion, you can check out Dr. Kristen Neff’s website, which is full of tools such as mindfulness practices that help in the development of self-compassion.
Neff, K. D. (2009). The role of self-compassion in development: A healthier way to relate to oneself. Human development, 52(4),211-214.
Neff, K. D., & Faso, D. J. (2015). Self-compassion and well-being in parents of children with autism. Mindfulness, 6(4), 938-947.
I’m a bilingual/bicultural Latina clinical psychologist. Some of my specialties & passions include maternal health, infant mental health, family therapy, & developmental disorders.