Self-Compassion and Healthy Relationships
Updated: Apr 5
What is Self-Compassion?
We all want to have strong relationships, whether it be with friends, family, or romantic partners. The struggle to build meaningful, deep relationships plagues us no matter how old we are. As absurd as this may sound, or maybe even counterintuitive, the best way to build and develop these strong relationships with others is through self-compassion. Being kinder to ourselves first, allows us to be kinder to others enabling us to be more open-hearted, empathetic, and tender.
You might think to yourself, “Self-compassion? Isn’t that just about loving yourself? Isn’t that selfish?” Well, that’s where you’re wrong, my friend. Self-compassion can be simplified into three main parts: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
The first component is about addressing the harsh critic that we have within ourselves. It’s the voice in our head that tells us things like, “We’re not good enough. You’re a loser. You’re pathetic. You’ll never amount to anything if you act like this. You’re not a good parent. You’re a terrible child. You’re an awful, unlovable, unworthy person.” We’ve probably been told things like that from friends, family, classmates, or even colleagues before. This harsh inner critic was probably developed from these experiences in order to motivate ourselves to do better. We can admit that it does motivate us, but how long does that motivation truly last after hearing criticism like that? Surely only for a short while.
Addressing this harsh inner critic is about talking to yourself as you would your friends. If your friends are having a bad day after failing an important test, how would you respond? My best guess is something along the lines of, “I’m sorry to hear that. It must be really hard. How are you feeling? Is there anything I can do to help?”
Approaching our harsh inner critic, means stopping the negative self-talk. Instead of calling ourselves failures after our mistakes, we should be kinder to ourselves. For example, let’s say you failed your driver’s examination, instead of saying, “Wow! I’m such a failure! I’ll never be a good driver. I’m so stupid.” Try saying, “I’m upset that I failed my driver’s examination. I know I messed up. I admit I was feeling nervous, but that doesn’t mean I won’t succeed the next time. It’s okay. I can do it.”
The next component focuses on realizing the likeness between us and others. Often when we are being negative towards ourselves, we are isolating ourselves from the rest of the world. We believe that we are the only person dumb enough to make such a mistake, or that no one else will understand our struggle. The emphasis on common humanity is to help us realize what it means to be human, that everyone in this world is imperfect, that we all make mistakes, and expecting ourselves to be perfect is impractical. Imperfection is a shared human experience.
In moments we fail to realize our shared human experience, we end up feeling like abnormalities which makes it harder for us to connect with ourselves and especially with others. Continuing with the previous example of the driver’s examination. We can find the common humanity by realizing that there are other people who have also failed their driver’s examination, there were also individuals that felt nervous, and furthermore there are individuals that took the test again and succeeded.
The last component is about being with what is in the present moment. During our tricky situations, we often have the tendency to avoid and ignore our thoughts and emotions, but mindfulness is about confronting them. It is staying in the present moment to become aware of our own suffering because we often do not realize that we are suffering. During this component, we should try to keep an open mind of our thoughts and emotions.
Once again borrowing from the previous example, after failing the driver’s examination, you have noticed that you are incredibly upset. Instead of dismissing those feelings, you recognize your sadness, frustration, perhaps even anger. Importantly, you acknowledge that these feelings are valid. Letting yourself feel these emotions instead of ignoring them lets you move forward faster, because the earlier you recognize your present situation the faster you can come to terms and find your solution.
Impact of Self-Compassion
So what does self-compassion have to do with relationships? According to a study by Yarnell & Neff, (2012) individuals who practiced self-compassion were more likely to compromise in conflict situations which helped resolve interpersonal conflicts. This led to an increase in communication, closeness, and relationship satisfaction. The partners of individuals that practiced self-compassion reported that they felt autonomous, competent, and a strong and stable interpersonal bond with their partner.
Self-compassion allows us to bridge the gap between ourselves and others by helping us notice that others are suffering, and we begin to be moved by others’ suffering. We are more prone to kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, and empathy—traits that we find in healthy, strong, stable relationships.
Because self-compassion is not about self-improvement but rather acceptance, we learn to accept and understand the other person in our relationship. We do not ask them to be perfect. We realize that they are bound to make mistakes. They are also experiencing their own struggles. The empathy and understanding that is built from this acceptance of the common humanity, allows us to embrace not only our flaws but also others.
We see ourselves clearly, and as a result we try to make changes that will benefit us in the future because we have found a safe way to see ourselves, with no judgement. The seeds we have unknowingly planted through the process of self-compassion start to flourish and bloom. Self-compassion helps us develop our communication skills, grow closer to ourselves and in turn others, which leads to relationship satisfaction.