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Self-Compassion Vs. Self-Care – Why You Should Understand The Difference Between Them

Laura Jackson RN, BScN, MN is an award-winning healthcare leader and holistic wellness facilitator. She is the Founder of Paradigm Joy Inc, a holistic mental health and wellness service that helps people to relieve stress, recover from trauma, transform limiting beliefs and cultivate self-compassion.

 
Executive Contributor Laura Jackson

In a hectic world taking care of yourself may be the last thing on your to-do list, if this sounds familiar, you are not alone. People often put the needs of others before their own and for some, putting work before health is an ingrained pattern of behavior and a societal norm that can be difficult to break free from.


Portrait of young beautiful woman hands gesture in open arms.

Taking the time to care for yourself is fundamental for health and well-being and can make the difference between burning out, suffering from illness, or thriving. When you decide to take care of yourself, with so much information out there, it may be hard to know where to start.


This article will focus on two popular wellness frameworks, self-compassion, and self-care. While similar in nature, self-care and self-compassion are different. Understanding the difference between them is an important first step when setting new health and wellness goals.


Compassion and care

The survival of our species is based on our ability to care for others. Scientists have been studying the evolutionary roots of compassion and caring for hundreds of years and Charles Darwin suggested that our ability to care for and about others is one of our strongest instincts.


Compassion

The cultivation of compassion is central to many spiritual and religious traditions and has been a pillar of contemplative practices for thousands of years.


Compassion begins with an awareness of another’s suffering, followed by a desire to alleviate and prevent the other person’s suffering. Compassion can be described as empathy in motion and is the embodiment of emotional resonance. It goes beyond sensing, feeling, and understanding, it ignites our desire to help and taps into our felt sense of connection to others. Compassion is broadly defined in the literature and depending on the context, it is described as an affective state or as a part of our motivational system.


Research has shown that compassion manifests in our bodies, when one experiences compassion, neurophysiological networks are activated in the process. Compassionate action has been found to activate the autonomic nervous system and instead of fleeing in the face of suffering, we slow down to notice and respond by helping the person who is suffering. Scientists have found that compassion is correlated with the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with warmth, connection, and nurturing. Although altruism is not a requirement for compassion, when we act altruistically, our brains are activated in the areas that are linked to positive emotions, pleasure and rewards.


Care

Like compassion, care involves action and intention, however the degree, depth, and nature of the responsiveness to the other varies. Researchers have argued that care is a more engaged activity than compassion. Watson’s Caring Science and Human Caring Theory suggests that care includes the promotion of health and wellness, the prevention of illness and the restoration of health.


Watson’s theory outlines 10 carative factors including:


  1. maintaining humanistic-altruistic values

  2. authenticity / encouraging faith-hope

  3. cultivating a sensitivity to self and other

  4. developing therapeutic relationships

  5. promoting the expression of feelings

  6. creatively problem-solving

  7. promoting teaching-learning

  8. facilitating a supportive environment

  9. assisting with basic human needs with dignity and

  10. allowing for spirituality.


Turning towards yourself


Self-compassion

Turning to your struggles, felt inadequacies and failures with compassion instead of criticism, overidentification and judgment is self-compassion. Practicing self-compassion improves mental and physical well-being. Self-compassion is associated with reduced psychopathology, shame, PTSD symptoms, eating pathology and body dysmorphia.


Self-compassion has also been correlated with improved happiness, life satisfaction, the ability to cope with stress and it has been shown to foster resilience and post-traumatic growth. Studies have demonstrated that it helps to reduce caregiver burden, increase compassion satisfaction, and decrease burnout in healthcare workers.


Self-compassion researcher Dr. Neff (2010) has distilled self-compassion into three components; mindfulness, kindness, and common humanity.


To practice self-compassion, you need to be mindful of your suffering. Mindfulness helps you to bring your awareness to the present moment, to pause and notice your suffering without judgment, overidentification and allow for kindness. 


When practicing self-compassion you meet your suffering with kindness. This may be hard to do, especially if you are confronted with a negative inner critic or if you chronically blame yourself when things do not go as planned. It takes practice and patience to act with self-kindness and show concern for yourself when you are struggling. According to Neff (2023), “Self-kindness involves being emotionally available when life becomes difficult. It means that we are moved by our own pain, stopping to say, ‘This is hard right now. How can I care for myself in this moment?’”


Lastly, self-compassion involves actively affirming your common humanity and acknowledging that suffering is a part of the human experience. Recognizing common humanity helps you to appreciate that you are not alone in your struggles and that there are individuals and communities that have experienced the same struggles as you.


Self-care

Self-care is the ongoing process of taking care of yourself to ensure that your basic needs are met so you can function to your full ability and live a healthy life. It is a proactive process that promotes health and delays the onset of disease and is important during all stages of life. Self-care is unique to you and requires self-awareness and ongoing self-assessment to prevent illness.


The World Health Organisation defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care worker”. Self-care transcends beyond the individual taking care of themselves, it impacts others and the environment around them. Because of the impact self-care has on communities and the health of the population, it plays a crucial role in influencing public policy and public health interventions. While self-care contributes to the prevention and better management of illness and disease, as well as better health outcomes, overtime it contributes to a reduced burden on the health care system, and society.


The definition of self-care is evolving and so is the ability to measure it. Weber et al (2023) suggests that self-care is based on core pillars and have expanded the definition to include the influence of health literacy, risk avoidance and mitigation, and service utilization. 


Scientists have also begun to suggest that the way self-care is conceptualized is flawed because it does not include the impact that socio-political systems, such as social injustice and inequity, has on an individual’s ability to access and practice self-care. There is emerging evidence and advocacy to include how these factors limit and impact access to self-care in new frameworks and for them to inform policy.


Self-care behaviors and routines are the specific actions and strategies that you take to care for yourself. These behaviors may include things such as eating a healthy diet, ensuring that you get enough sleep and physical activity, managing your mental health, and reducing stress. Self-compassion can be a part of your self-care routine.



Cultivating a routine

Taking a step towards a lifestyle that embodies self-care is an important next step to promote and sustain health, wellness, prevent and manage illness and disease.


When developing a self-care plan or routine, it is helpful to start small, keep it simple and build from there. It is less about getting it perfect and more about taking small actionable steps that support your health and wellness.


 

Making a commitment to yourself

Starting on the journey towards health and wellness can be daunting and it takes time, patience, and perseverance to achieve a goal and make sustainable lifestyle changes. Taking the time to define clear goals and make a plan is important and it is helpful to track your progress along the way. Incorporating a support system into your plan, such as friends, family and health and wellness professionals will increase your chances of success and help you to stay on track.


If you're ready to embark on a self-compassion or self-care routine and don’t know where to start, or feel that you need additional support, consider taking a course on self-compassion or self-care or working with a coach who can provide you with personalized guidance and support tailored to your specific health challenges and wellness goals.


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Read more from Laura Jackson

 

Laura Jackson, Healthcare Leader & Holistic Wellness Facilitator

Laura Jackson RN, BScN, MN, is certified in psychiatric and mental health nursing with the Canadian Nurses Association and is a Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach with the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching. She is the Founder of Paradigm Joy, a holistic mental health and wellness service where she provides counselling, coaching, education, and retreats. Her approach to wellness is holistic and integrative. With an emphasis on somatic (body-based) interventions, she uses her skills in nervous system co-regulation, therapeutic yoga, meditation, and self-compassion to create an environment of safety and to support people to relieve stress, recover from trauma, transform limiting beliefs, and reach their full potential.

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