Why students can benefit from practicing self-compassion

Imagine that you went to check your grade for an exam and found you didn’t get the result you were hoping for. What’s the first thought that goes through your mind? Do you feel anger, contempt, judgment, and self-criticism?

Exams are just one stressor you may experience as a university student. Throw burnout, homesickness, and navigating new relationships into the mix, and it’s no surprise that research has found that university students typically experience a decline in well-being and are at risk of self-criticism and perfectionism!

Unfortunately, the impacts of these feelings can be severe. So how can we improve mental health and well-being and promote a kinder relationship with ourselves? The key is practicing self-compassion!

What is self-compassion?

Dr Kristen Neff, a pioneer in the study of self-compassion, defines self-compassion as treating ourselves with warmth and understanding when confronted with suffering, failure, or feelings of inadequacy. In many ways, self-compassion is the opposite of self-criticism which is the tendency to engage in negative self-evaluation resulting in feelings of worthlessness, failure, and guilt when expectations are not met.

Self-compassion can look like many different things. If we don’t get the grade we were hoping for or even failed an assessment, self-compassion might be gently validating the disappointment we might feel instead of beating ourselves up. Self-compassion is acknowledging the part of us that wants to beat ourselves up in the face of failure and suffering and move towards kinder, more gentle ways of responding to our pain. Self-compassion responses might look like giving ourselves gentle affirmations, making a small cup of tea, seeking connection, or doing something that can make us feel calmer. 

Why is self-compassion important for university students? 

Self-compassion could be a useful tool to assist university students. Research has found that for university students, self-compassion is linked with lower levels of depression, anxiety, distress, burnout, stress, and higher levels of well-being. Naturally, by caring for our well-being through self-compassionate practices, we can give ourselves the best chance at doing well in our studies. 

By cultivating a more compassionate approach towards ourselves, we can learn to tame the beast that is self-criticism and respond to ourselves in kinder, more validating ways, even in the face of failure.  

How to practice self-compassion and tame your self-criticism 

The good news is, self-compassion is something we can practice and strengthen. Compassionate mind training is an empirically validated, evidence-based program that has been developed specifically to reduce self-criticism, by cultivating self-compassion. During this program, participants can learn more about the role their self-criticism plays and engage in experiential exercises to help alleviate their self-criticism and find more compassionate ways of responding to their suffering. 

Research has found that compassionate mind training has been effective in reducing self-criticism, shame, and psychological distress, as well as promoting well-being. 

UQ students can practice compassionate mind training for free as part of a study being conducted through the UQ School of Psychology. You can learn more about the study and volunteer on the Compassionate Mind Training for University Students webpage.

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Last updated:
15 March 2023