chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Litigation News

Spring 2019, Vol. 45, No. 3

Seeking Self-Compassion

Joseph Beckman


  • "Compassion" is often at odds with the adjectives typically used to describe lawyers.
  • A growing body of research suggests that a higher level of self-compassion generally correlates to a higher level of mental health.
Seeking Self-Compassion
wera Rodsawang via Getty Images

Jump to:

Adjectives typically associated with lawyers lean toward the active and powerful. A trial lawyer will not likely be disappointed to be described as “tenacious,” “relentless,” or “unyielding.” At a minimum, it is good marketing. Everyone wants a partner in the trenches who brings an attitude that he or she will not abandon the post and will fight to the last bullet.

The adjective “compassionate” is perhaps at odds with this vision. The adjective “self-compassionate” is perhaps even further afield.

As explored previously in this series, however, will living your life in such an unyielding manner be more likely to lead to success or burnout?

By this point, even the casual reader of this column knows the adage that “[i]f we don’t [learn to] bend, we can [reasonably expect to] eventually break.” Research suggests that another important way to teach ourselves to bend is by practicing what psychologists call “self-compassion.”

Self-Compassion Is Strongly Linked to Good Mental Health

While perhaps an outgrowth of concepts like mindfulness and gratitude, a growing body of research suggests that a higher level of self-compassion generally correlates to a higher level of mental health.

Because self-compassion limits the amount of self-criticism we dole out to ourselves, this may not be surprising. Research appears to show that even when one “controls” for self-criticism and negative affect, self-compassion nonetheless “protects” from depression and anxiety.

For example, persons who regularly practice self-compassion exhibit a greater ability to cope with negative emotions. They are more likely to acknowledge their negative thoughts and emotions, and they are not necessarily inclined to suppress them. This may, at least in part, explain how self-compassion is a “negative predictor” of depression.

So What Is Self-Compassion?

According to Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on the topic, self-compassion is defined as a caring, accepting, and supportive attitude toward the self in the context of (personal) suffering, failure, and shortcomings.

Self-compassion has three interacting components, each with a “yin-yang” type of polarity. In Neff’s words:

  1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment
    Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against, suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration, and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.
  2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation
    Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation—as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. All humans suffer, however. The very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
  3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
    Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. This equilibrated stance stems from the process of relating personal experiences to those of others who are also suffering, thus putting our own situation into a larger perspective. It also stems from the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions with openness and clarity, so that they are held in mindful awareness. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.

Compassion vs. the “What-the-Hell” Effect

Barry Goldwater famously paraphrased the words Karl Hess wrote for his 1964 nomination acceptance speech, which were, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This may be true for political matters, but extreme positions are probably less helpful from a self-care perspective.

In psychology, one example of extremism in action might be the “What-the-Hell” effect. This effect is thinking that once a slip occurs, there is no reason to stay the course. Thus, when an individual slips on a diet by eating a chocolate chip cookie fresh out of the oven, he might say to himself, “What the hell” . . . and proceed to pour a huge glass of milk and eat every cookie on the tray.

However, a Duke University study shows that self-compassion may mitigate the “What-the-Hell” effect. This study placed college women who identified as body/diet conscious in a situation where several (in effect) “broke” their eating regimen. (Those who “broke diet” drank a large glass of water to fill their stomachs, then ate a chocolate donut.)

The experimenter brought in a tray of candy and asked the women to eat as many as necessary to answer the questions in the survey. After the women identified their candy preference, the tray remained on the table as each participant answered a “final questionnaire.”

Some of the subjects received “self-compassion manipulation” that touched on self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. In short, they were told, “We’ve noticed some people feel guilty about eating that donut, and you might, too.” (This is a type of mindfulness.) “We want to remind you that everyone indulges sometimes.” (This is the link to common humanity.) “That’s OK, just bear those things in mind, and do not be too hard on yourself if you decide to indulge as part of this experiment.” (This is a self-kindness or self-forgiveness message.)

The women who received the “self-compassion” manipulation message ate less than half the amount of candy (28 grams) than those who did not (78 grams).

Self-Compassion Is the Perfect Alternative to Self-Esteem

According to Professor Neff, self-compassion is very different from its cousin, self-esteem. To begin, self-compassion is not contingent. Instead, self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness, care, and understanding you would show to a close friend. We are not as often “at our best” with strangers. Nor, surprisingly, are we at our best in terms of self-compassion with our family. With close friends, however, we know how to be supportive, understanding, and get ourselves through a tough time.

There are three areas in which we invest self-esteem: social approval, perceived attractiveness, and success. Self-esteem tends to be unstable. It is a “fair-weather friend”; thus, it cannot help us have a good relationship with ourselves. The end result is often a feeling of inadequacy when things do not go as hoped or planned.

Mindfulness, common humanity, and kindness are key elements of self-compassion. The research shows self-compassion, unlike self-esteem, presents fewer psychological “pitfalls.” For example, people who score higher for self-compassion demonstrate

  • fewer social comparisons,
  • no association with narcissism,
  • less maladaptive perfectionism, and
  • less contingent self-worth.

To be clear, self-compassion does not mean weakness. It does not undermine motivation. It does not lead to self-indulgence. These are myths.

Rather, self-compassion is a source of strength and resilience. It increases motivation, leads to healthier behaviors, and even enhances interpersonal relationships. (When you actively direct compassion toward yourself, you are more inclined to show it toward others.)

In sum, self-compassion is self-care for the mind and spirit in the same way that proper diet and exercise are self-care for the body. Self-compassionate people are inclined to be mindful of—and take the time to invest in—that equally important component of their mental and emotional health. When you do, both you and your clients are likely to benefit!