Self Compassion: Benefits for Physicians

I’ve known professionals who were reluctant to practice self-compassion. Not because they thought it wouldn’t make them feel better, but because they thought it would make them be worse.

“A mistake could be fatal.”

Chances are high that you have said some version of this to yourself, or had it said to you, many times. You may even have said it to others.

We can accept that this is true and also offer compassion to ourselves when we struggle or fall short of our expectations, or when mistakes happen, as they inevitably will. 

After all, how likely is it that all your study, training, drive, intellect, passion, and desire for excellence are insufficient and if you stop mentally abusing yourself you’ll suddenly make more errors?

Not very likely, right?

Research actually shows that physicians who are self-compassionate have lower levels of burnout, fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and lower levels of stress. They also show more empathy towards patients than physicians who are less self-compassionate. There is nothing about self-compassion that is detrimental to performance.

Self-compassion has three main components. One of these is self-kindness. This refers to being gentle and caring towards ourselves. It is not the same thing as “self-care,” a term which has been largely corrupted to mean expensive vacations or time-consuming rituals. Self-kindness is a more encompassing attitude of self-love and self-acceptance.

Another of the components is recognition of our common humanity. This component involves acknowledging and accepting that people are not perfect and that life isn’t perfect either. Everybody fails. Everybody suffers. When we keep these facts in mind, our own failures, missteps, and suffering don’t make us feel isolated the way we might when we lose sight of these realities. As Dr. Kristin Neff ( puts it: “When we’re in touch with our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal.” We can stop comparing our insides to other people’s outsides (social media being a prime example).

Consider this: At the height of the COVID pandemic, the New York Public Library System decided to offer forgiveness for overdue fines. The rationale was that this grace might motivate some folks to return items to which they were still holding on.

But instead of a handful of people bringing books back, the system received over 95,000 books. 

When we fall short of what we expect from ourselves, we are not unique in that experience.

The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness. This involves being aware of our experiences and holding that awareness in a way that does not either avoid or amplify our pain. 

One of the specific activities that Dr. Neff suggests for helping develop self-compassion is a writing exercise considering how you would treat a friend. Writing your responses is far more impactful than simply thinking about them so I encourage you to take the time and effort to actually put your thoughts down on paper. 

Think about times when people close to you have struggled or been down on themselves. How have you responded to them? Think about what you said, what you did, and the tone of voice you used in your interactions. Remember to write your thoughts out if at all possible, preferably in longhand instead of on a computer.

Next, think about your response to yourself when you are struggling or feeling self-doubt. Think again about what you say, what you do, and the tone you use in speaking to yourself (for more details about self-talk and changing your habitual self-talk patterns, see the last post).

Are there differences between the ways you respond to your friends and the ways you respond to yourself?

If there are, then why might that be? What is it about your habits, experiences, beliefs, or anxieties that might underlie those differences?

And lastly, what might happen if you responded to yourself the way you respond to a friend who is hurting? What if you showed the same empathy and compassion for your own shortcomings as you are able to do for others that you love?

I invite you to throw aside any doubts you may have about how self-compassion might affect your performance and begin to take steps towards this powerful practice.


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