The science of self-compassion

Alice Windsor
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK
12 February 2021
Next review due February 2024

Valentine’s Day is traditionally a time to show others love. But as lockdown continues, many people will feel the weight of loneliness or loss even more this weekend.

Having self-compassion and inward kindness can do wonders for your mental health. It’s now more important than ever to be kind to yourself. Here, I’ll explore how.

Self-compassion and your mental health

After a long bath, some fresh air, or an hour alone with a good book, you may be aware that you feel better for it. In fact, there have been many studies into why being self-compassionate is good for your mental health.

Bupa’s Behavioural Insights Adviser, Lauren Gordon, explains: “Compassion is the ability to show empathy, kindness and concern to others, especially during difficult times. Self-compassion is when you bring it back toward yourself – the same as you would to others – when things go wrong or you’re feeling low. When you’re self-compassionate, it engages similar regions in your brain that expressing compassion towards others does.

“Studies have found that people who are self-compassionate are less likely to be critical of themselves and therefore less likely to feel anxious or depressed. Because being self-compassionate creates a sense of self-worth, you care about your wellbeing and are more likely to ‘bounce back’ after a setback or knock. It can also help to reduce stress and, in turn, bring you greater happiness, optimism and life satisfaction.

“Research suggests that self-compassion enhances wellbeing because it helps you to feel cared for, connected and calm. It can deactivate your ‘threat’ system and activate your ‘self-soothing’ system, which is associated with feelings of security and safeness. This can help you cope better during stressful situations.”

Your inner voice

Being self-compassionate isn’t always easy to do. You may view it as self-indulgent or selfish. But try to see being kind to yourself as a positive thing. It all starts with your inner voice.

  • Listen to your inner voice and make time to notice how you speak to yourself. It’s easy to be more concerned with what’s going on around you or on social media, rather than tuning in to how you’re feeling.
  • If your inner voice is critical or doubting, you’re less likely to pick yourself up and carry on. Having a gentle and encouraging inner voice can make you feel much better about things and help you deal with them better.
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes and fail. It’s normal to feel upset after a mistake, but it’s important that you don’t let those feelings take over and linger. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll be kind rather than judgmental. Remind yourself that no one is perfect, and everyone has times when things don’t turn out how they planned.
  • See mistakes or failures as important. Having an inner voice that is self-compassionate during these times will allow you to grow, learn and adapt.
  • The things you’ll often be most critical of are your habits and behaviours. Learn how to stay motivated to achieve your goals. Recognising that failure is often part of reaching a goal is a good way to avoid being critical and more self-compassionate.

Show yourself some love

During harder times or after a difficult day, make a point of doing something to show yourself kindness and compassion. It doesn’t have to be much. Think of the things that make you feel better and make the effort to carry one or two of them out.

Need some ideas? Below are several things that may help you connect inwardly and ultimately make you feel that little bit better.

  • Exercise! Any form will do, as long as you enjoy it. Head out for a run along your favourite route, or mix it up by taking a different path to discover new places and sights. Try a home workout or simply go for a brisk walk to help clear your mind and connect with yourself. You may want to exercise alone or with a member of your household or support bubble. Or invite a friend to join you, socially distanced.
  • Do a yoga class. Many people find that yoga is a great way to exercise and build strength, but also unwind and think inwardly. The slower, calmer pace of yoga gives you the space and time to focus on both your mind and body.
  • Meditate. Being mindful and meditating gives you the head space to think clearly about how you feel in that moment in time. Lots of people use meditation to show inward compassion and kindness. You don’t have to be seated and still with your eyes closed to do it (although that’s preferred by many). Why not head out into the fresh air and try one of our walking meditation podcasts.     
  • Get lost in a good book. Reading is a great way to unwind and leave the daily stresses of life behind. Team it with a warm bath or a mug of your favourite tea and give yourself that much-needed physical and mental rest.
  • Bake! Baking or cooking gives you chance to be mindful and creative. It’s also an expression of self-love by making yourself a sweet treat or nourishing meal. Make a point of cooking healthy dishes or bakes and savouring every mouthful.
  • Write yourself a letter. This can be a great way to reflect on your feelings. Even better, write the letter to yourself as though it was from a close friend. This can give you a greater sense of perspective and it’s easier to show kindness to yourself this way.

Our health insurance allows you to skip a GP referral in some cases, and speak to a mental health practitioner. Learn more today.

Alice Windsor
Alice Windsor (she/her)
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK

    • Neff KD, Hsieh Y, Dejitterat K. Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self Identity 2005; 4:263–87. doi:10.1080/13576500444000317
    • Terry ML, Leary MR. Self-compassion, self-regulation, and health. Self Identity 2011; 10(3):352–62. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2011.558404
    • Longe O, Maratos FA, Gilbert P, et al. Having a word with yourself: neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance. NeuroImage 2010; 49:1849–56. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.09.019
    • Homan KJ, Sirois FM. Self-compassion and physical health: exploring the roles of perceived stress and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychol Open 2017; 4(2). doi: 10.1177/2055102917729542
    • Kirschner H, Kuyken W, Wright K, et al. Soothing your heart and feeling connected: a new experimental paradigm to study the benefits of self-compassion. Clin Psychol Sci 2019; 7(3):545–65. doi: 10.1177/2167702618812438. Epub 2019 Feb 6
    • Breines JG, Chen S. Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2012; 38(9):1133–43. doi: 10.1177/0146167212445599

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

Did you find our advice helpful?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our healthy lifestyle articles.