(Epistemic Status: This is an attempt to draw a distinction that feels important, but which I have little evidence for.)
Recently I’ve been reading Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff. I haven’t checked any of the underlying evidence, so buyer beware, but the basic premise of the book is that there are large benefits to crafting an intentional attitude of compassion towards oneself.
I don’t want to focus on the specifics of Neff’s book though. Rather, I want to highlight that there are (at least) two different things that self-compassion could mean in practice, both of which appear in the book, and that this distinction is often not drawn clearly.
The first meaning is, roughly
Accept yourself for who you are, accept your limitations and fallibilities, and so find contentment.
Let’s call this the “Acceptance” frame.
The second meaning I’ll call the “Kindness” frame:
Don’t excuse your mistakes, but approach yourself with understanding as you would a friend who had messed up.
See the difference? The Acceptance frame is about viewing yourself with compassion and removing the need for change, while the Kindness frame preserves the impetus for change but shifts to a kinder and more compassionate way of interacting with that push.
In the past I’ve repeatedly bounced off the idea of self-compassion, generally because this distinction wasn’t clear. I’d encounter something of the Acceptance frame and recoil, with the fear that believing in it it would mean giving up on a growth mindset. But the Kindness frame offers an appealing alternative, preserving growth and easing the journey.
What does this look like in practice? Here are a few examples:
Scene: You just forgot to pay a bill on time.
Harsh: “Dammit I’m so bad at things. I really need to remember the due date.”
Acceptance: “It’s okay that I forgot. To forget is to be human. It’s not ruinous, so it’ll be okay.”
Kindness: “It’s not great that I forgot. This is a hard situation, but I’m doing okay. How can I avoid this in the future?”
Scene: You snapped at a friend who was trying to help.
Harsh: “I’m such a terrible friend. Why can’t I just be better at this?”
Acceptance: “I was having a hard time, everyone does things they regret when they’re having a hard time.”
Kindness: “This is difficult. Just take a moment to get some balance. Okay. It’s not the end of the world, and it doesn’t make me a bad person, but I don’t want to do this again.”
See the pattern? The “Harsh” response here, which is often the default, tries to motivate change by being strongly critical. The “Acceptance” response isn’t concerned with change, and is primarily focused on soothing the pain. And the “Kindness” response is sort of a mix of the two, aiming to both soothe the immediate difficulty yet still motivate change.
The Long Game
A key case that Neff makes is that the Kindness frame can be even more effective at enabling growth than the more heavy-handed default of harsh criticism. The argument is that, in the long run, we learn to shy away from acknowledging mistakes if we default to a harsh response. This avoids the pain of the response, at the cost of also preventing us from learning from those mistakes. By contrast with the Kindness frame there is space to make mistakes and learn from them, without fear of self-inflicted repercussions.
This also ties in with how the growth mindset is often practiced. There’s an emphasis on embracing mistakes as lessons and on how great it is that there are opportunities for improvement. The Kindness frame agrees with both of these claims, and adds an extra push to be understanding when things are hard, to take a moment to care about oneself before pushing onward.