Self-Compassion Practices for Emotional Distress: It’s not just about being kind

leavesSelf-Compassion practices and programs are gaining momentum in psychological treatments and look like they might well become the next wave of transforming our painful feelings. Mindful Self-Compassion (1), developed by Drs. Christopher Germer and Kristen Neff, is an approach that can be both an adjunct to conventional therapies as well as a stand-alone treatment model. The interesting and very useful aspects of this approach are its applicability to our multilayered experiences of suffering. First, let’s look at what they define as Self-Compassion.

Neff (2) describes it as a three-fold system that are antidotes to the experiences that cause us suffering. (A sidebar note: Suffering is typically described as Pain multiplied by our Resistance to the reality of that pain (3)). Here’s a table that summarizes Neff’s definition of self-compassion.

How suffering happens

Self-Compassion practices that transform suffering

Dispersed, over-identified with our pain, autopilot


Isolated (shame, blame, anxiety)

Common Humanity

Self-blame, critical, negative self-appraisals


When we become fused with our pain, see it as taking over the entire horizon, we suffer from that pain. It’s a layer that rolls out over the initial hurt: the anxiety about the pain, what it means, how we believe it now defines us. Feeling that way tends to lead to isolating ourselves from others; but that’s also isolating ourselves from help and support. Typically, we feel shame because we think we should have better control, be stronger, be better; this adds to the isolation. Of course, we’re also in a culture that values independent action, take-charge solutions, which is not always the best approach. Because we these limitations, we use the tools we have learned from childhood. Get over it! Suck it up! I shouldn’t feel this way! This self-critical mind is the Inner Critic. It’s a bit like a good friend who has your best interests at heart but is also really, REALLY unskillful in how to motivate you. It knows you more intimately than anyone in the world. It knows your good, even great qualities. And it unfortunately uses your achievements, those carrots, like a stick.

Many of the practices in Mindful Self-Compassion are intended to change how we respond to our pain and how to tone down that Inner Critic. Mindfulness de-fuses us from our painful experience. Seeing our Common Humanity, that we are not alone or unique in our suffering allows us to feel less shame and reach out. Self-Kindness teaches us that we are worthy of that help and support. Practices like loving-kindness, empathy-eliciting exercises, affectionate responses to our experiences engage us in a conversation with ourselves that – because it’s kind – we’re more likely to hear and feel encouraged to follow through. (Practice  meditations are here.)

Self-Compassion doesn’t stop at being kind; that would end up being a bit self-involved. It goes deeper by connecting us with our physiological up-regulation that accompanies emotional distress. When we encounter difficult situations that are crises or even traumatic, our entire body becomes up-regulated, activated. In cases of trauma, we stay outside our Window of Tolerance (see graph below, 4) and that can lead to many kinds of painful reactions. Eventually, the body regulates itself but it can be a long, tough process.

There’s little research on the mechanisms by which self-compassion effects change. However, one study (5) showed that overall self-compassion scores are related to lowered avoidance of experiential distress. In other words, self-compassion is connected to a willingness to feel what we feel despite the discomfort in it. When we can do that, we’re less likely to feel the world is a scary, frightening place. So bringing ourselves back into that Window of Tolerance in a physical, emotional, and mental way is very important.

The practice of Soften-Soothe-Allow in the Self-Compassion can help to facilitate a down-regulation of internal distress. Softening our tension around the experience of distress (picture the effect of a warm compress on a sore muscle) meets our physical needs. Soothing (picture the effect of a back rub or hug) meets our emotional need. Allowing the experience just be what it is rather than what our fears tell us it will be (picture the effect of seeing the situation for what it is) meets our cognitive/mental needs. When we apply this to internal distress it looks like the picture below (6).



On the left side of the midline is a graphic of our system when it is hyper-aroused (or hypo-aroused) by stress, crises, trauma. When affected, we pop out of the zone of resilience and stay out there until we eventually reset. On the right side are two ways we can use the soften-soothe-allow practice to bring us back into the Window of Tolerance. It can be (and best as) a continuous practice. Stop signs, red lights, phone calls, and so on are opportunities to practice. When we really up-regulated, there’s already a body memory of that soften-soothe-allow process and it’s more likely to be helpful to reset.

The meditation is here. Make it your practice for week or a month and see how it helps!


1. Center for Mindful Self-Compassion
2. Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2: 85–101.
3. Shinzen Young
4. Ogden, P., Minton, K., and Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: Norton
5. Thompson, B.L. and Waltz, J. (2008). Self-Compassion and PTSD Symptom Severity. Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 21, No. 6, December 2008, pp. 556–558.
6. Adapted from Monteiro, L. and Musten R.F. (2013). Mindfulness Starts Here: an eight-week guide to skillful living. Victoria BC: Friesen Press.



1 Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this info. as it is with a lot of strategies etc offered, one would check it out for themselves and see how or if it works for them. thanks take care.

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