Self-compassion: A Lifeline for Parents

Parenthood is a beautiful, transformative journey, but it can also be incredibly demanding and overwhelming. As a parent, you might often find yourself juggling countless responsibilities, from managing household chores to attending to your children’s needs, all while trying to maintain a semblance of personal balance. In this whirlwind, self-compassion can be your greatest ally, offering a sense of calm, confidence, and ease amidst the chaos.

Self-compassion is a simple but powerful antidote to our tendency to strive for perfection as parents.

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, “self-compassion involves being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them” (Neff, 2003).

Self-compassion doesn’t depend on achieving particular goals or living up to a specific standard. Instead, it is what we give ourselves during our most difficult times – when we feel we have failed, when we feel ashamed, disappointed, or upset with ourselves. It involves being fully aware of our present moment experience, rather than fleeing from it by defending a particular view of ourselves. Often, when we struggle, we judge ourselves harshly and feel so alone. Self-compassion practice reminds us that all human beings suffer at times.

Kristin Neff, a developmental psychologist and lifelong meditator, teaches self-compassion by first asking us to consider how we respond naturally when we notice a friend in distress. Our natural compassionate response to a friend is exactly what we need to do for ourselves during stressful times.

She identifies three core components of self-compassion:

  1. Mindfulness: Recognising and accepting the present moment, acknowledging that this is a moment of suffering.
  2. Self-Kindness: Responding with kindness to your own suffering instead of self-criticism.
  3. Common Humanity: Understanding that suffering and imperfection are part of the shared human experience.

When we feel upset, we often do the opposite: we don’t pay attention to our feelings, we judge ourselves harshly, and we tend to feel isolated and alone. Contrary to popular belief, being compassionate with ourselves makes us more open to facing our own faults, rather than less. Evidence suggests that people are more able to admit faults the more they are self-compassionate.

The Misconception of Self-Compassion as Self-Justification

Sometimes parents feel that being compassionate to themselves is equivalent to making excuses for behaviour they find unacceptable. However, being self-compassionate does not mean justifying or excusing something we’ve done that we feel is wrong or hurtful. On the contrary, it’s when we’ve done something objectionable that we most need self-compassion.

When we’ve done something we regret or hurt someone, even unintentionally, we feel bad. This is normal and reflects our moral conscience. When we are compassionate with ourselves instead of judgmental, we tend to the part of ourselves that is suffering, comforting ourselves in our moment of pain, in the same way we might be kind to a friend who has done something she regrets. In that sense, self-compassion is closer to forgiveness; it is accepting that, as humans, we cannot help but make mistakes or have difficulties in our interactions with loved ones.

Self-compassion is not self-justification or saying, “It’s okay, it’s not really so bad, you really didn’t mean any harm.” It’s simply acknowledging the pain of your own suffering and being compassionate towards yourself in that moment of suffering, instead of heaping more criticism on yourself.

The Three Arrows of Suffering

The concept of the “three arrows” is a powerful metaphor in mindfulness and Buddhism that illustrates how we can often add unnecessary suffering to our lives.

  1. The First Arrow: Represents the unavoidable pain or discomfort that comes from life’s inevitable challenges. This could be anything from physical pain, loss, disappointment, or any difficult situation we encounter – and we all know that being a parent is the hardest job we ever had! These experiences are often out of our control and are a natural part of being human.
  2. The Second Arrow: Represents our reaction to the first arrow. It’s the additional suffering we create for ourselves through our responses, such as worrying, self-criticism, anger, or resentment. This arrow is self-inflicted and stems from our thoughts and emotions about the original pain.
  3. The Third Arrow: Represents the sustained and often habitual mental patterns that keep us stuck in a cycle of suffering. This could include chronic worry, long-term resentment, and continued rumination over past events. Unlike the second arrow, which is more immediate, the third arrow involves the persistent reinforcement of negative emotions and thoughts over time.

An Example of the Three Arrows in Parenting

  1. First Arrow: The first arrow is the initial event or situation that triggers a reaction. In this case, it could be your child refusing to listen, making a mess, or behaving in a way that tests your patience. This situation is challenging and can naturally cause frustration or stress.
  2. Second Arrow: The second arrow is your immediate reaction to this challenging situation. For instance, you might lose your temper and yell at your child. This reaction might be accompanied by thoughts like, “Why can’t my child just listen?” or “I’m a terrible parent for getting so angry.” This reaction adds a layer of suffering, both for you and your child.
  3. Third Arrow: The third arrow involves the longer-term effects and ongoing mental patterns that can arise from this situation.

    After yelling, you might continue to feel guilty or ashamed for hours, days, or even longer. You might dwell on thoughts like, “I’m failing as a parent,” or “My child will never forgive me.” This rumination and self-criticism perpetuate the suffering and can affect your overall well-being and relationship with your child. Or you might instead get involved in denial and distraction, such as compulsive eating, shopping, scrolling, and busyness – basically, whatever you may be drawn to in order not to feel the second arrow.

Breaking Free from the Cycle of Suffering

Mindfulness and other practices can help us recognise and disengage from these harmful patterns. By becoming aware of how we perpetuate our suffering, we can learn to let go of these habitual responses and cultivate a more peaceful and balanced mind. 

In summary, while the first arrow is about unavoidable pain and the second arrow is our immediate reaction to that pain, the third arrow highlights the longer-term, habitual mental patterns that prolong and intensify our suffering. Recognising all three arrows can help us break free from these cycles and lead a more mindful and fulfilling life.

Embracing self-compassion is a vital practice for parents. It allows us to navigate the challenges of parenthood with greater resilience and understanding. By treating ourselves with the same kindness and compassion we would offer a dear friend, we can foster a more nurturing and supportive environment for both ourselves and our children.

How to learn self-compassion

Learning to be more self-compassionate involves practices like mindfulness meditation, where you focus on your breath and acknowledge your thoughts and feelings without judgement. Another useful practice is to write a compassionate letter to yourself, as you would to a friend going through a tough time. Additionally, remind yourself daily that imperfection is part of the human experience and that you deserve the same kindness you offer to others.


Bögels, S., & Restifo, K. (2014). Mindful parenting: A guide for mental health practitioners. W. W. Norton & Company.

Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualisation of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.

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