What is Self-Compassion, and can it help University Students?

By Joshua Remedios

Self-compassion could be a wellness tool for students

It is no secret that university presents multiple stressors, such as academic demands, homesickness, and burnout. Students can be self-critical and harsh towards themselves in times of stress and uncertainty. Not surprisingly, researchers such as Colleen Conley at Loyola University in Chicago have found that students typically experience decreases in well-being when entering university. But how can we improve the mental health and psychological well-being of university students? Enter: Self-compassion!

What is Self-compassion?

Think about how you would help a friend or loved one through a difficult time. What words of encouragement would you offer them? Most people would be kind, understanding, and comforting. Now, think about the last time you went through something difficult. How did you speak to yourself during that difficult time? It is common for people to be much harsher towards themselves compared to people they know or do not even know. Self-compassion emphasizes a new, healthier way to treat oneself in times of difficulty or failure.

Self-compassion is made up of three core elements, each with opposing constructs.

  1. Self-kindness is exactly that; treating yourself kindly during a difficult time, similarly to how you would treat a loved one. This contrasts with self-criticism, which involves being harsh to yourself and towards your inadequacies.
  2. Common humanity emphasizes the understanding that there are others out there sharing similar hardships. This contrasts with isolation, which is the feeling that you alone are experiencing hardship.
  3. Mindfulness refers to taking a non-judgmental and balanced attitude in your emotional experiences. This contrasts with over-identification, which involves rumination of your negative thoughts and emotions (Neff, 2003).

What Self-compassion is Not

People often have many misconceptions about what constitutes self-compassion. For instance, someone might believe that being self-compassionate means spending an entire day at the spa and constantly treating oneself with luxury. This is not true! Self-compassion does not mean being self-indulgent. Those who are truly self-compassionate understand that in order to grow, one must be willing to engage in behaviours that are ultimately the best for their health and well-being. There is nothing wrong with treating yourself now and then, but self-compassion promotes doing what is best for you in the long-term, which does not involve constant self-indulgence. Self-compassion is also not self-pity. Those who pity themselves are often egocentric in their problems and believe that their issues are unique. To the contrary, self-compassion highlights common humanity, acknowledgement that times of hardship are often shared by others. Self-pity also involves being absorbed in negative emotions, which inhibits an objective appraisal of one’s feelings. However, self-compassion encompasses treating both positive and negative emotions with neutrality, neither ignoring nor over-identifying with them. This mindfulness allows for a more self-compassionate response to adverse emotions

Self-Compassion and University Students

Transitions during university can be tumultuous and it is not surprising that university students often struggle with mental health issues. So, self-compassion could be a useful tool to assist university students. In fact, researchers from Carleton University have found relationships between self-compassion and mental health. For example, Dr. Katie Gunnell and colleagues found that increases in self-compassion over the first year of university were related to increases in well-being and decreases in ill-being. Dr. Marina Milyavskaya and colleagues have found that students high in self-compassion had stronger goal pursuits and were less affected by goal fluctuations compared to students lower in self-compassion. Actively promoting self-compassion in university students has also yielded positive outcomes. Researchers in Norway found that when students completed a three-session mindful self-compassion intervention, they showed reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms which were maintained at a six-month follow-up.

In sum, self-compassion may be considered an adaptive tool to help university students succeed and thrive throughout their post-secondary experience. So, if you are a university student, take some time to think about how you talk to yourself!

Looking for more information on self-compassion? Check out https://self-compassion.org/ for free self-compassion information and resources.

Carleton University students can also find resources for wellness at https://carleton.ca/wellness/living-well/resources/


Conley, C. S., Kirsch, A. C., Dickson, D. A., & Bryant, F. B. (2014). Negotiating the transition to college: developmental trajectories and gender differences in psychological functioning, cognitive-affective strategies, and social well-being. Emerging Adulthood, 2(3), 195–210. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167696814521808

Gunnell, K. E., Mosewich, A. D., McEwen, C. E., Eklund, R. C., & Crocker, P. R. E. (2017). Don’t be so hard on yourself! Changes in self-compassion during the first year of university are associated with changes in well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 107, 43–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.11.032

Haukaas, R. B., Gjerde, I. B., Varting, G., Hallan, H. E., & Solem, S. (2018). A randomized controlled trial comparing the attention training technique and mindful self-compassion for students with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 827. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00827

Hope, N., Koestner, R., & Milyavskaya, M. (2014). The role of self-compassion in goal pursuit and well-being among university freshmen. Self and Identity, 13(5), 579–593. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2014.889032

Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: an alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032