Mindfulness, self-compassion or both?

Self-compassion as an alternative to self esteem

I first came across the term “self- compassion” over a decade ago, when it was starting to be proposed as an alternative to self-esteem as a marker for wellbeing. It was becoming apparent that the focus on self-esteem as the ultimate attainment for wellbeing was problematic, based on a requirement to be the best at something to feel good about ourselves. We can’t always be the best/ at our best and they were finding that the drive for good self-esteem was related to bullying and narcissism.

Enter self-compassion (or should I say “re-enter” as there is nothing new about being compassionate to ourselves being good for us…this is ancient wisdom and in fact part of our physiology). If self-esteem is about feeling good about ourselves when things are going well…..what about when they are not? When we mess up, when there are painful emotions and difficulties. Self-compassion is about how we treat ourselves when life is not going well, when it is painful….

“Self-compassion is treating yourself like you would a dear friend” K Neff


 Self-compassion: not for me thanks

My first encounter with self-compassion did not go well……we just didn’t gel.

It just seemed too foreign to me, great for others yes but not for me! It seemed so self-indulgent and contrary to my upbringing. How was I going to be strong and motivated if I became all self-compassionate?

Take the self-compassion test


What the research says

Little did I know at the time that Dr. Kristin Neff’s and colleagues’ research on self-compassion was showing that in fact; our motivation to make and sustain changes is actually increased with self-compassion! When we are not bullying ourselves it is actually easier to change. The research also found that rather than being selfish or self-indulgent, self-compassion increased people’s ability to be with others pain and difficulties sustainably. Those with high self-compassion had more resilience, improved relationships and were less stressed. It was also being implicated as a way to reduce burnout in health professionals and carers.


DcsKbGxVwAA0kx8The mindfulness doorway opens

Mindfulness practice however was a doorway I could go through back then, slowly at first, in and out. Over time becoming a mindfulness practitioner and eventually a teacher of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction).

What I discovered through my mindfulness practice, like so many people in my classes, was that I needed self-compassion, not more striving to get it right and be more aware. Bob Sharples calls this the “subtle aggression of self-improvement” and goes on to say…..

“Don’t meditate to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself; rather, do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself”

Being with the present moment isn’t always pleasant

As we practice mindfulness more and get past the idea that this is just a nice relaxation exercise and another way to try and feel good all the time……we discover that the present moment isn’t always pleasant. This is where the transformation starts to really deepen. How can I be with the inevitable unpleasant, difficult and painful, without resisting, avoiding or becoming overwhelmed by it?

Self-compassion can resource us …… going with a caring friend into a difficult situation it enables us to move towards the unpleasant. It makes me think of when a child has a grazed knee; we cannot stop the pain, but holding and soothing the child helps them to be with it and move through.

“We practice self-compassion not to get rid of anything but because it hurts” Kristin Neff

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M Leunig

The attacked and the attacker

Mindfulness practice allows us to see the patterns and habits of the mind that cause us suffering and stress…we get “in-sight”. Something I saw clearly was how much stress and suffering was coming from “my own hand” (well actually more my own mind). My nervous system perceived that I was under attack continuously….from myself, causing a stress reaction (and likely a whole load of stress hormones too).  I had tried many forms of stress reduction out there….what I hadn’t tried was learning how to stop attacking myself.

A pivotal moment for me was on working meditation retreat (where I was in silence and meditating a lot while also doing a job). I got to see for myself in crystal clarity how much I was always on my case and the harm this was causing. Sometimes overt self-criticism but also a kind of continuous, subtle low level judgment of not quite getting it right. Out of the accumulated mindfulness practice and teachings came the knowing that:

Self-compassion was the missing link in stress reduction. If I wanted to be less stressed, I needed to go there.

“What if I should discover that…..I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness-that I myself am the enemy who must be loved?”   C.G. Jung


The Mindful self-compassion programme

“When the student is ready the teacher will appear” unknown

My teachers appeared in the forms of Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Chris Germer who developed the Mindful self-compassion programme and Dr. Anna Friis and Kristy Arbon who guided me skilfully through it.

The Mindful self-compassion programme (MSC) is an evidence based 8 week course similar in structure to an MBSR and they go really well together.

Self-compassion like mindfulness is a practice; in other words it needs to be actually put into action to make a difference rather than just knowing the theory. By acting in a self-compassionate way through practices we change the brain to become more self-compassionate people. The fact that neuroplasticity exists and I knew that what I practiced would change me, greatly helped me keep motivated with the inevitable discomfort of doing something differently.

Mindfulness and self-compassion: same/ different?

Depending on who you talk to it seems that mindfulness and self-compassion are seen as the same or different but related.

For me I needed the mindfulness practice to be able to notice that I am suffering/ (dis)stressed in the first place. Although adept at picking up on others distress my ability to notice my own “moments of suffering” needed a lot of mindfulness practice. In some ways I think the two grew together, supporting each other.

As an MBSR teacher an important part of mindfulness practice is about the “how” we are mindful, the attitude we bring to our experience. The awareness is infused with the qualities of compassion and kindness, it is warm, friendly and kind, not mean, harsh and judgmental. So if compassion is intrinsic to mindfulness then is self-compassion too?

I do wonder if this depends somewhat on the person being mindful? Western culture in my experience generally doesn’t encourage self-compassionate behaviour. Do some of us therefore need self-compassion to be taught in a more explicit defined way? Such as in an MSC training?

Dr. Neff talks about the difference this way….

The kindness and compassion of mindfulness is aimed towards the experience.

The kindness and compassion in self-compassion is aimed towards the experiencer.


It seems there are many doorways to self-compassion I hope you find yours.




Kate Brandram-Adams is a Registered mental health nurse and Registered MBSR/ mindfulness teacher. She has been in clinical practice for over 25 years.

She teaches mindfulness courses, workshops and retreats in Rangiora and all over North Canterbury as Mindfulness North Canterbury. She offers Mindfulness Based Stress reduction (MBSR) twice a year in Rangiora and is passionate about offering these evidence based mental health programmes to rural communities/ non city dwellers.

Kate also teaches Mindful self-compassion workshops in the Canterbury area to the community and also to workplaces. She specialises in teaching mindful self-compassion to health professionals, carers, counsellors and teachers. She is active in making health care compassionate for all and attended the NZ compassion in healthcare conference this year.

Kate also works in addictions and brings mindfulness and self-compassion to her many clients and group participants.

She has her home in rural North Canterbury with a Jersey steer, horse, chickens, 2 cats and a husband. Her loves are animals, permaculture, yoga, painting and dancing.

Balancing the negativity bias with mindfulness

Thank goodness we can train our brains to notice the good stuff too. Our factory setting as human beings is to be really awesome at noticing the bad, even storing it in our deepest memory banks so we will not forget!!! (and remember when we are trying to go to sleep). A wonderful adaptation for survival but not that much fun! We of course are the ones that have survived….so we tend to be really good at noticing bad stuff. The good news is…..neuroplasticity! the brain is changeable based on what we focus it on. So we can even things up if we practice noticing those good moments, not letting them slip past unnoticed!
Give it a go this weekend…..see how many good things you can notice, doesn’t have to big stuff…..smiles, hugs, cat purring, sip of tea, bulbs coming up, hot shower…….
I am running a mindfulness retreat on Sunday so this will be one of our practices.


Mindfulness and gratitude

What we pay attention to regularly shapes our brain; which changes our minds and perception of the world. Our human minds are built to have negativity bias, in other words they tend to pay attention and remember the negative stuff more than positive.
Great for survival but not so great for feeling happy 
Thank goodness for neuroplasticity: our brains are more like a muscle, they are changeable and can be shaped by what we pay attention to and practice regularly.
It can be habitual for us to spend much of our time only aware of and focused on what we don’t have, what isn’t good enough about me, someone else or a situation. What is lacking. The more we do this, the more the brain looks out for more of this, it becomes sensitized to the negative and what is lacking.
Mindfulness helps us to ask “what else is here right now?” to be aware of the good moments, the absence of difficulty or pain, even if that is only momentary. Asking ourselves what are we grateful for right now regularly can literally start to re wire and shape the brain create a grateful mind. Don’t take my word for it, why not give it a go……….

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The uncomfortable isn’t always bad for us…..

We are wired to move away from the unpleasant and uncomfortable, great for survival purposes but also quite limiting as most of us are fortunate enough to be interested in more than just surviving. Being able to allow and even move towards some discomfort is in important too. Discomfort and unpleasant doesn’t always equate to bad and dangerous.
Can you think of times in your life when the unpleasant and uncomfortable has actually been really important in your growth and development? Important moves or decisions that would never have been made if there hadn’t been the metaphorical torch on your arse?
This  exploration is an important component of Mindfulness Based stress reduction MBSR.1_RS2vTH4a5Ef3XMwbdZg3rg

Mindfulness of procrastination.

Are you a procrastinator? I sure am….. from way back and the suffering is real hey!
Mindfulness and self compassion practices can really help. As this article explains procrastination isn’t a lack of willpower or laziness… is yet another form of avoidance of the unpleasant, unpleasant emotions and feeling states…. or what is called “experiential avoidance”. We are often unconsciously trying to avoid the unpleasant and keep the pleasant. Totally understandable behaviour…..unfortunately sometimes we have to be with the unpleasant to get to where we want to get to or to be in alignment with what matters to us, our values.
So even though our basic physiology and nervous system says (screams) avoid unpleasant! grab and hold onto pleasant (and take no notice of the neutral) this is not always what serves us best and as an evolving species (more then just blindly reacting) we can use mindfulness and self compassion to make this more conscious and make some actual choices of what we want to do.
So, always avoiding the unpleasant doesn’t always make us feel good or happy. My experience of procrastination (that I have got to know well over the years with mindfulness) is it feels pretty awful. I get irritable and even more stressed trying to hold onto to less unpleasant activities in the attempt to avoid the unpleasant feelings associated with the task I am avoiding/ procrastinating over…usually on the familiar themes of perfectionism “I won’t do it well enough” or fear/ anxiety “I will get it wrong, or something will go wrong”.
The thoughts of how it is going to be doing the task, leading onto the predicted feeling states; is usually much much worse then it turns out to be when I actually get round to avoided task ….leading to thoughts of “that wasn’t that bad, why didn’t I do that before” with the all to familiar pull into self berating! (bring in self compassion)
Ok….. the article is brilliant and I will stop procrastinating now and get on with what I was supposed to be doing!