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Nurses Need More Self-Compassion

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By Frieda Paton, M.Cur, RN

Compassion towards others draws us to nursing, but we seldom practice self-compassion. However, studies have shown that when nurses have higher self-compassion scores, they are more resilient and less likely to experience compassion fatigue and burnout.

With self-compassion, we treat ourselves with the same kindness and caring that we show towards others. This behavior is the opposite of our usual critical and disrespectful self-talk when we have failed or are in distress.

With practice, self-compassion can be learned. First, this article looks at what self-compassion is and what it is not. Then, we discuss a few ways to start practicing self-compassion and provide resources you can use to further your journey towards being kinder towards yourself.

Why do nurses need self-compassion?

Nurses enter the profession because of their desire to serve humanity – they focus on others rather than themselves. Unfortunately, for the same reason, nurses often neglect the self-care they need to refuel. Without being caring towards yourself, you will eventually be unable to care effectively for others. Studies have shown that practicing mindful self-compassion increases satisfaction with life and reduces depression, stress, and anxiety. At the same time, it makes us more compassionate towards others.

Compassion fatigue

At work, nurses interact with people and deal with their patient’s pain and suffering all day. When they don’t find ways to decompress, this can eventually lead to compassion fatigue – a state in which one just doesn’t care anymore. You either get through the day by just doing the necessary tasks, or you leave the profession. Self-compassion has been shown to counteract compassion fatigue.


Research has confirmed that nurses suffer from higher levels of burnout than the general population. This results from the nature of the work and the pressure of long hours and staff shortages. Greater self-compassion builds emotional resilience and reduces burnout.


Nurses tend to become perfectionists because of the high demands in the health care field and the possible serious consequences of mistakes. Therefore, being conscientious and taking care to avoid mistakes is a necessary trait in nursing.

However, believing that things should always be perfect means that we don’t accept that things don’t always go as expected. And that people do sometimes make mistakes. This is part of life and being human.

When things do go wrong, does your inner critic go into overdrive and consume all your thoughts? This can lead to a downward spiral which could eventually cost you your mental health and career.

What is self-compassion?

“How could I have been so stupid?”  “I am so useless.”  “Why do these things always happen to me? There must be something wrong with me.”

Can you deny that you regularly communicate like this with yourself?  That you tell yourself things, you wouldn’t even say to someone you dislike.

Self-compassion is being kind and understanding towards yourself, as opposed to being judgmental.  You don’t allow your inner critic to take the upper hand. Instead, you say the same supportive things to yourself as you would to your best friend in similar circumstances.

Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity, where we feel sorry for ourselves and all alone in our suffering. Instead, we get caught up in our misery and fail to see the situation in its proper perspective.

Self-compassion also does not imply self-indulgence. When we indulge in actions like staying in bed all day and binge-eating, we usually end up berating ourselves even further. This doesn’t translate into being kind to ourselves. Sometimes self-care means dealing with an unpleasant task now to reap the future benefit.

The three elements of self-compassion

Dr. Kirsten Neff, a trailblazing researcher in the field of self-compassion, identified three elements of self-compassion.

Self-kindness vs self-judgment

When you fail, feel inadequate, or are going through a painful experience, show yourself some care and understanding. Tell yourself that, under the circumstances, it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling and speak some kind words to yourself.

This is opposite to our usual reaction of ignoring the pain, getting angry, or criticizing ourselves.

Common humanity vs Isolation

When something goes wrong, we focus on the “I” and feel as though these things only happen to us. However, self-compassion acknowledges that suffering, or not always being perfect, is part of the human experience.

Mindfulness vs. over-identification

We become mindfully aware of our negative emotions with self-compassion and accept them for what they are, without judgment. This way, we can see these emotions in perspective and neither suppress them nor get carried away in our negative reactions.

Practicing self-compassion

We naturally tend to be rigid and judgemental towards ourselves because our brain is wired towards the negative. Our subconscious scans for treats all the time so we can take action to preserve our personal safety.

But we know from our own experience that coming down hard on someone is not the best type of motivation.

Self-compassion is a learned behavior and only becomes a habitual response with regular practice.  

Tender self-compassion

To start with, try the following supportive self-talk in any problematic situation. It addresses all three of the abovementioned elements of self-compassion.

  • Say to yourself, “Yes, this experience that I’m going through is hard. I am feeling pain.” Or helplessness, anger, or whatever other emotions you can identify.
  • Tell yourself that everyone suffers from time to time. It’s a normal part of life.
  • Be kind to yourself at that moment. What would a friend need to hear in the same situation? Say these exact comforting and reassuring words to yourself, either in your thoughts or on paper. Also, touch your heart or give yourself a hug. Touch releases oxytocin which makes you feel calm and safe. Surprisingly, your body reacts irrespective of where the touch comes from.

Fierce self-compassion

Self-compassion, however, does not end with being gentle and reassuring with ourselves at the moment of our distress. We don’t want to get stuck in this space.

The next step is what Neff has coined as fierce self-compassion, where we are kind to ourselves by taking the action that is necessary to alleviate our suffering. Nurses are well-acquainted with this type of action – like when we coax a patient to get up out of bed and start moving around, even though they don’t want to.

In nursing, fierce self-compassion may mean that we have to face up to and report an error we made, set boundaries, say no to even more overtime or stand up for the injustices we see around us. 

Learn more about self-compassion

Self-compassion is an entirely new way of relating to ourselves with kindness, and it needs conscious practice. Start learning while you are a student nurse, and it will benefit you greatly for the rest of your career.

Maybe you don’t believe that you are particularly self-critical. Test this when you have a negative experience – even something as simple as burning the food or not getting the grades you expected for an assignment. Close your eyes and relive the situation and what went through your head. Write down everything you said to yourself and take note of any harsh and judgmental thoughts.

You can also complete a test to determine your own level of self-compassion. On the same website, there are many free resources for developing self-compassion and learning more about it. There are a number of different exercises and guided meditations, including a video on self-compassion for caregivers. There is also an extensive list of references to research studies on self-compassion.

Frieda Paton is a registered nurse with a Master’s degree in nursing education. Her passion for nursing education, nursing issues and advocacy for the profession were ignited while she worked as an education officer, and later editor, at a national nurses’ association. This passion, together with interest in health and wellness education since her student days, stayed with her throughout her further career as a nurse educator and occupational health nurse. Having reached retirement age, she continues to contribute to the profession as a full-time freelance writer. In the news and feature articles she writes for Nurseslabs, she hopes to inspire nursing students and nurses on the job to reflect on the trends and issues that affect their profession and communities - and play their part in advocacy wherever they find themselves.

1 thought on “Nurses Need More Self-Compassion”

  1. Dear Frieda,

    Hope this message finds you well.

    I’m a 2nd year doctorate degree student in South Africa, currently working as a nursing lecturer. Please will you kindly assist me with any current information you may have regarding self compassion and nursing students.

    Your kind assistance will assist me greatly.
    thanking you


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