So many of us think that self-compassion is the same as self-indulgence. That is, we think that self-compassion means sitting on the couch and zoning out while we watch TV. For hours and hours. We think self-compassion means shirking our responsibilities. We think it means buying things we can’t afford because we simply want them. We think it means being solely ruled by short-term pleasure, letting self-gratification dictate our actions.
We think it means not being accountable for our choices, said Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco. We see self-compassion as coddling ourselves and being hard on ourselves as the only way to achieve results, she said.
Confusing self-compassion with self-indulgence is a common reason why people don’t practice it, said Ali Miller, MFT, a therapist in private practice in Berkeley and San Francisco, Calif. This is understandable because self-compassion is a fairly new concept. It isn’t even in the dictionary yet.
Miller likes Kristin Neff’s definition of self-compassion, which features three components: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. She believes that the key distinction between self-indulgence and self-compassion is mindfulness.
“Self-compassion involves turning towards what I’m experiencing with care, whereas self-indulgence involves turning away from what I’m feeling, often in an attempt to try to feel better.”
Self-indulgence tends to be short-sighted, Shinraku said. In other words, she said, we do something that feels good in the short-term but has negative longer-term consequences—possibly for our health, finances or career. Self-compassion is the opposite.
Shinraku likened self-compassion to being a “good-enough parent”: a parent who’s kind and gives their kids boundaries. “A good-enough parent doesn’t just let their child eat ice cream and play video games all day every day; they know that indulging them in that way would actually not be compassionate or kind. It would be harmful.”
What might this distinction look like in your life?
Take the example of a work deadline. You’ve been working non-stop and feel incredibly overwhelmed. Relating to yourself with self-compassion might mean acknowledging your deadline and your stress, said Shinraku, founder of The San Francisco Center for Self-Compassion, which offers therapy, classes and workshops focused on self-compassion. You might remind yourself that you’re not alone: “Someone else in this situation would likely have feelings similar to what you are feeling.” You might take a 10-minute break to walk around the block. Or you might plan a longer break after meeting your deadline. Or you might request an extension.
“With self-compassion, you recognize the realities of your situation; the feelings you have about them; and the ways that you are not alone. [Y]ou then respond honestly and kindly.”
In contrast, if you’re relating to yourself with self-indulgence, you might push yourself so hard to meet the deadline that you burn out, Shinraku said. Then you crash—and drink too much or shop excessively to cheer yourself up. Or maybe you think: “Other people don’t have to deal with stress like this; I shouldn’t have to either!” So you ignore your deadline, head to the beach and rationalize your actions by saying you need a break and your deadline is unfair in the first place, she said.
In another example, you have credit card debt, which is really overwhelming you. Responding with self-compassion might mean reviewing your finances, along with brainstorming how you can reduce your spending and boost your income, Shinraku said. This way you can pay down your debt.
Responding with self-indulgence, however, might include ignoring your feelings and watching Netflix all night or buying something to make yourself feel better, she said. The purchase feels good in the moment, but it ups your debt (and later spikes your stress).
Miller doesn’t find “self-indulgence” to be a useful term. For one thing, it’s defined as excessive, which is subjective. One person might see napping as excessive, while another person might see it as completely normal, she said.
Self-indulgence also is rooted in judgment, she said. “Rather than reinforcing the judgment inherent in the term, I prefer to get curious about what needs certain behaviors don’t meet for someone. [For instance] what needs it doesn’t meet for someone who wants to take a nap in the middle of the day and is calling himself self-indulgent.”
The key with self-compassion is exploration. As Shinraku said, it’s an ongoing experiment. “So, you can try different responses and see what actually feels helpful in a holistic way, not just for certain parts of you.” She suggested readers start by pausing, sitting quietly and asking ourselves about the most compassionate step we can take next. If you’re not sure, consider these questions: “If I do this, how am I likely to feel about it tomorrow? Is it likely to increase my feelings of discouragement and overwhelm? Or is it likely to help me feel more resourced?”
There are many people who worry that focusing on their needs and feelings makes them selfish—and if they do this often then they’re being self-indulgent, Miller said. “It’s so clear to me that much more harm is done when we ignore our feelings and needs and don’t attend to our own suffering. [That’s because] whether we are turning towards them or not, our feelings and needs are running the show.”
In other words, it’s much more helpful to pay attention to our needs and to respond to them with kindness—having our best interests at heart for today and for tomorrow. Which is what self-compassion is all about.