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Gentle yet Fierce – A Lesson in Self-Compassion

Updated: Jul 17

self care counselling

As a recovering perfectionist, I’m the kind of person who can be a little hard on myself when I don’t get things right. Maybe you’re a bit like me and the first person you blame when anything goes wrong is yourself.  In these situations, it’s important to practice self-compassion. Kristen Neff, a pioneer in the research on self-compassion, and the author of a number of books on the topic, has the following to say about self-compassion:


“Self-compassion is simply the process of turning compassion inward.  We’re kind and understanding rather than harshly self-critical when we fail, make mistakes, or feel inadequate.  We give ourselves support and encouragement rather than being cold or judgmental when challenges and difficulties arise in our lives. Research indicates that self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience we have available, radically improving our mental and physical wellbeing. It motivates us to make changes and reach our goals not because we’re inadequate, but because we care and want to be happy.” (Neff,

So how can we apply this powerful tool in the face of life’s inevitable challenges? There are two complementary aspects of self-compassion, which I like to call the gentle and the fierce aspects. This duality provides a balanced approach to caring for ourselves.

The Gentle Side of Self-Compassion

The gentle aspect of self-compassion embodies gentleness, acceptance, and nurturing. Neff’s theoretical model (2016) outlines three core components of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness: Soothing and comforting oneself when in pain. 

  2. Common Humanity: Recognizing that suffering is a universal human experience.

  3. Mindfulness of Suffering: Being aware of and open to one's pain in the present moment.

Gentle self-compassion involves embracing our vulnerabilities and offering ourselves the same kindness we would extend to a friend, usually by practicing more traditional types of self-care. For example, a woman experiencing professional burnout might practice gentle self-compassion by relaxing in a warm bath and eating a nourishing meal at the end of a demanding day. This act of self-care helps soothe the mind and body, providing a space for recovery and renewal.

The Fierce Side of Self-Compassion

On the other hand, fierce self-compassion manifests as strength, protection, and assertiveness. The same three core components—self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness—take on a more active, forceful form in this context:

1. Self-kindness: Protecting oneself and setting boundaries.

2. Common Humanity: Standing in solidarity with others who share similar struggles.

3. Mindfulness of Suffering: Clearly seeing and addressing injustices or harmful situations.

Fierce self-compassion involves taking decisive actions to safeguard our wellbeing. For instance, for the woman experiencing burnout above, fierce self-compassion might involve having a candid conversation with her supervisor about workload management or seeking support from colleagues. This approach emphasizes inner strength and the courage to make necessary changes for one's health and happiness.

Balancing the Gentle and the Fierce 

To truly benefit from self-compassion, it's essential to balance both aspects. This means knowing when to be gentle and nurturing with ourselves and when to be strong and assertive. By integrating both approaches, we create a holistic practice of self-compassion that supports our emotional and mental wellbeing in diverse situations.

Consider incorporating both gentle and fierce self-compassion into your daily habits. Make a list of self-care activities you can reach for after a stressful day. Then, consider balancing that with proactive steps to reduce the source of stress (for example, organizing your tasks for the following day, or practicing how you can speak assertively to your supervisor). This balanced approach allows you to address immediate emotional needs while also taking steps to reduce future stressors.

Embracing both the gentle and fierce aspects of self-compassion can transform how we handle suffering and stress. By soothing and comforting ourselves, while also standing up and protecting ourselves, we foster a resilient, compassionate approach to life’s challenges. Remember, self-compassion is not a one-size-fits-all solution but a versatile tool that adapts to our needs, helping us thrive both personally and professionally.

Let’s cultivate self-compassion together, embracing both the gentle and fierce sides of ourselves. If you would like to explore how to be more compassionate towards yourself, I would love to go on that journey with you – bookings are open now for counselling consultations.

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