How self-compassion rather than self-criticism might help us navigate difficult times

Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

This is a guest post from Vanessa Thurn, who was a student in my Positive Psychology seminar at Goethe University this summer. She wrote a beautiful essay on what it means to be self-critical or self-compassionate in the times of the pandemic.

Enter Vanessa…

Sometimes, we seem not to be good enough for ourselves. We seem not to be successful enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, or interesting enough. We would love to be all of this at once. We have such high goals—goals out of reach that sometimes lead ourselves to be our worst critic.

Does self-criticism motivate us to reach our goals or does it prevent us from achieving them? Should we be kinder to ourselves or is this inner critic what makes us successful?

Self-compassion means that we learn to stop judging ourselves constantly and instead, accept ourselves with the same love and care as we would accept a good friend.

Right now, in the chaotic and confusing year of 2020, being kind to ourselves seems to be harder than ever before: Since the beginning of the year, the outbreak COVID-19 has changed everybody’s lives completely. Many people have died, others have lost loved ones , some have lost their jobs, and are isolated from society.

Especially for people who were already alone or struggling with mental health issues, the social distancing rules to keep the virus from spreading have been disastrous. Now, more than ever, it might be important to quieten our inner critic and instead, be a good friend to ourselves.

Buddhist Philosophy

The concept of self-compassion finds its roots in Buddhist philosophy. From a Buddhist perspective, you must be able to care for yourself before you can care for others. Constantly judging and criticizing yourself while trying to be kind to others is the opposite of universal love and unity. In Western society, we are always advised to just keep on going and not to complain about how hard something might be. Therefore, we seldom stop and listen to our own pain and realize what we are suffering from. As individual achievements and independence builds the center of Western society’s values, we tend to blame ourselves when we do not achieve our highest goals—and therefore we do not deserve self-compassion.

But in reality, we all do.


According to Kristin Neff, self-compassion can be divided into three main components: Self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. The first component, self-kindness, means that we should be warm and understanding, rather than judging and degrading toward ourselves—especially when we fail. It means that we should understand and accept our failures and weaknesses instead of constantly harming ourselves with harsh criticism. Self-kindness also includes the active act of comforting ourselves with the same amount of warmth and sympathy we would give a good friend.

The second component, common humanity, means that we ought to see ourselves as part of one humanity and feel connection with other human beings. Common humanity helps us recognize that suffering is a shared human experience and that we are not the only ones who sometimes fail or feel pain. The opposite of common humanity is isolating ourselves from others or comparing ourselves to others (an even bigger problem in Western society).

The third component, mindfulness, includes being present in the moment and perceiving and accepting this moment as it is. Mindfulness is an important precondition to self-kindness: We must recognize that we suffer from a hard time in our life, and just acknowledge how the situation is in the very moment. Many people have difficulties doing that and tend to to either completely focus on their negative experience and ruminate or avoid their feelings altogether.

In the current crisis, we can use self-compassion with its three components to motivate ourselves. Especially the components of common humanity and mindfulness could help us overcome the current uncertainty and fear.

We are all in this together. We must see that nobody is alone in this: Every country in the world has been affected by the pandemic and we all suffer from loneliness and anxiousness. This pandemic is an experience shared by every single human being on this planet, no matter how rich or poor, successful or unsuccessful, pretty or not pretty he or she is. The virus does not differentiate between people and this means we, as individuals, do not suffer alone.

The concept of mindfulness might help us accept the situation we are in. As nobody, not even virologists, can foresee the future, we must realize and accept the current moment. We must acknowledge that the threat is real, and we must protect ourselves and others as best we can. So, when the world and the events around us are already chaotic and intimidating enough, it can be helpful to take a step back and just be friendly to ourselves.

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