Self-Compassion vs the Compassionate Self
- What’s the difference? 

By Chris Winson

#365DaysOfCompassion

The Compassionate Self is a central practice in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) or Compassionate Mind Training (CMT). It involves the development of core qualities that contribute to a compassionate mind:

  1. wisdom about the nature of human distress and pain
  2. strength and courage to tolerate distress
  3. commitment to alleviate distress and pain

Making contact with, embodying and engaging in life from the compassionate self forms a key part of supporting and helping people to manage the problems they face in life. 

However, for some people, the idea of the Compassionate Self can appear synonymous with self-compassion – noticing when we are distressed, and finding ways to alleviate it.  

But are they the same though?  Is the Compassionate Self just another way of describing self-compassion? Let’s take a look through some examples.

Climbing with the Critic

Imagine a road, winding its way up a steep hillside, with you sat on a bike at the start of its incline.  You need to reach the top of the hill and the road stretches out ahead, full of twist and turns. You sit on your bike and wonder if you can do it. “Probably not, I’ll stop halfway and give up as usual” you think as you shrug and start off to ride.  Your bike has one gear and as you cycle your knees start to ache, the incline seems to get greater and greater.  “Ha…told you, not even at halfway and going to stop”.  As you slowly turn the pedals your grip tightens on the handlebar and you clench your jaw, tears appearing.  Perhaps you make it to the top, when your first thought is “I am so slow and weak, others would have got here much quicker”. Perhaps you don’t succeed and think “There, knew it – failure”.

Our harshest critic is often ourself.

One antidote to such self-criticism is to be that bit kinder to ourself, to encourage ourselves with self-compassion.  And it helps.  Let’s see what happens on the climb….    

function of self-criticism, Self-Compassion vs Compassionate Self, Image of the Self-Critic

Climbing with Self-Compassion

Imagine a road, winding its way up a steep hillside, with you sat on a bike at the start of its incline.  You need to reach the top of the hill and the road stretches out ahead, full of twist and turns. You sit on your bike and wonder if you can do it. “Possibly I won’t be able to do this in one go.  I’ll try, but I may stop at halfway for a rest and then complete it” you think as you get comfortable on the bike and start off to ride.  Your bike has one gear and as you cycle your knees start to ache, the incline seems to get greater and greater.  “Ah, as I thought this is hard, perhaps harder than I thought.  I might just stop here and take a few minutes rest”.  As you slowly turn the pedals your grip tightens on the handlebar and you clench your jaw, tears appearing.  Perhaps you make it to the top, when your first thought is “That was hard. Perhaps others may have got here quicker, but I did it my way and what an achievement”. Perhaps you don’t succeed and think “That was much harder than I thought. What could I do to help myself reach the top of the hill?”.

That sounds better doesn’t it?  

Self-compassion has changed the thoughts, and while it may not always change the outcome, it has changed the relationship to the event.  

So that’s it then, self-compassion is super helpful and involves being that bit kinder in thought and behaviour towards ourselves to help encourage us.  Job done.   

But hold on – is there another scenario?  Now consider what happens if the compassionate self helps on the climb….

Climbing with the Compassionate Self

Imagine a road, winding its way up a steep hillside, with you sat on a bike at the start of its incline.  You need to reach the top of the hill and the road stretches out ahead, full of twist and turns. You sit on your bike and wonder if you can do it. “Possibly I won’t be able to do this in one go.  I’ll try, but I may stop at halfway for a rest and then complete it” you think as you get comfortable on the bike and start off to ride.  Your bike has several gears and as you cycle you listen to your body, and as your knees start to ache you change down the gears as the incline seems to get greater and greater.  “Ah, as I thought this is hard, perhaps harder than I thought. I am really pleased I got the gears fitted and learnt how to use them.  Even so, I might just stop here and take a few minutes rest”.   

What is self-compassion?

As you slowly turn the pedals your grip tightens on the handlebar and you clench your jaw, tears appearing. However with the help of the gears you find this pain manageable  Perhaps you make it to the top, when your first thought is “That was hard. Perhaps others may have got here quicker, but I did it my way and what an achievement. Next time I may be able to do it without a rest with some more training.”. Perhaps you don’t succeed and think “That was much harder than I thought. Perhaps I was not ready or prepared enough.  What could I do to help myself reach the top of the hill? Perhaps I could switch the tyres to more narrow, less resistant ones to help more. I’ll do some reading and planning around what may help.”

The difference between the first two scenarios is more obvious, where the self-compassionate encouragement is clearly more helpful than the self-criticism.  But the difference between the second and third is more subtle, but important.  This is not to detract from self-compassion, but rather to illustrate some key differences with the compassionate self that may be more helpful.  

The compassionate self has added wisdom and courage onto a foundation of self-compassion. 

The wisdom to think about what might be helpful, so changes to the environment, in this case adding gears to the bike,  make achieving the climb more likely and to an extent easier.  The courage to see that adding the gears has not lessened the achievement nor lessened the need to take a rest half-way up the hill.  The wisdom to think about other things which may help if didn’t each the top of the climb, along with the courage to recognise that perhaps the time was not right and some more preparation would help. 

Self-compassion is great and helps develop an inner supporter rather than an inner critic.  By adding courage and wisdom, informed by that encouraging inner supporter, our compassionate self can help us even further.

Self-Compassion vs Compassionate Self - The Difference

The difference between the first two scenarios is more obvious, where the self-compassionate encouragement is clearly more helpful than the self-criticism.  But the difference between the second and third is more subtle, but important.  This is not to detract from self-compassion, but rather to illustrate some key differences with the compassionate self that may be more helpful.  

The compassionate self has added wisdom and courage onto a foundation of self-compassion. 

The wisdom to think about what might be helpful, so changes to the environment, in this case adding gears to the bike,  make achieving the climb more likely and to an extent easier.  The courage to see that adding the gears has not lessened the achievement nor lessened the need to take a rest half-way up the hill.  The wisdom to think about other things which may help if didn’t each the top of the climb, along with the courage to recognise that perhaps the time was not right and some more preparation would help. 

Self-compassion is great and helps develop an inner supporter rather than an inner critic.  By adding courage and wisdom, informed by that encouraging inner supporter, our compassionate self can help us even further.

Chris Winson

About the author: 

Chris Winson discovered CFT while managing depression and found it so helpful that it leaf to the creation of the #365DaysOfCompassion hashtag, around which an online community has grown,  consisting of daily compassion themed posts, a weekly Review magazine, book club and other resources aimed at sharing information about bringing a compassionate approach to wellbeing.  The #365DaysOfCompassion resources can be found via https://linktr.ee/chriswinson 

Are you interested in learning self-compassion, or how to develop your Compassionate Self? We’ve got a variety of resources that can fit your needs and learning style