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Self-Compassion for Lawyers: Dispelling Doubts & Getting Started

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

Self-compassion might not come naturally for many lawyers at first — but it’s a powerful tool for well-being.


Starting Definitions


“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

“Awareness, of the present moment, with acceptance.” – Chris Germer

“Knowing what you are experiencing, while you’re experiencing it.”


“Active, nonjudgmental embracing of experience in the here and now.” – Steven Hayes


“An accurate understanding of the [another’s] world as seen from the inside. To sense [another person’s] world as if it were your own.” – Carl Rogers


“The wish that all sentient beings may be happy.” – Dalai Lama


“The wish that all sentient beings may be free from suffering. “ – Dalai Lama

“Deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and other living beings, coupled with the wish and effort to alleviate it.” – Paul Gilbert


“When we suffer, caring for ourselves as we would care for someone we truly love. Self-compassion includes self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.” – Kristin Neff


Self-Esteem v. Self-Compassion

Self-esteem can be defined as a global evaluation of self-worth – judging yourself as a good person or a bad person. Self-esteem is not a bad thing; it’s how we get our self-esteem that can be problematic. Self-esteem is often based on comparisons with others (feeling “special and above average”) and tends to be contingent on success.

Self-compassion, however, does not entail evaluations of good or bad, but simply involves relating to yourself kindly, especially when you fail or notice personal shortcomings. This means that self-compassion is always available – it doesn’t desert us when we fail, and it fosters feelings of social connectedness rather than social comparison.

Research shows that compared with self-esteem, self-compassion is less contingent on things like physical attractiveness or successful performances and provides a more stable sense of self-worth over time. Self-compassion is also linked to less social comparison and narcissism than self-esteem (Neff & Vonk, 2009).


Common Misgivings

1. “Self-compassion is a form of self-pity.” Self-compassion remembers that everyone suffers (common humanity) and doesn’t exaggerate the extent of suffering (mindfulness), so is not a “woe is me” attitude. Research shows that self-compassionate people are more likely to engage in perspective-taking rather than focusing on their own distress (Neff & Pommier, 2013). They are also less likely to ruminate on how bad things are (Raes, 2010).

2. “Self-compassion is weak.” Self-compassion is a strength that offers resilience when faced with difficulty. Research shows self-compassionate people are better able to cope with tough situations like divorce (Sbarra, Smith & Mehl, 2012), trauma (Hiraoka et al., 2015), or chronic pain (Wren et al, 2012).

3. “Self-compassion is selfish.” By including oneself in the circle of compassion (a humble agenda!), our sense of separation from others is lessened. Research shows self-compassionate people tend to be more caring and supportive in romantic relationships (Neff & Beretvas, 2013), are more likely to compromise in relationship conflicts (Yarnell & Neff, 2013), and are more compassionate toward others (Neff & Pommier, 2013).

4. “Self-compassion is self-indulgent.” Compassion wants long-term health not short-term pleasure (just like a compassionate parent doesn’t let their child eat all the ice cream they wants, but says “eat your vegetables.”) Research shows self-compassionate people engage in healthier behaviors like exercise (Magnus, Kowalski & McHugh, 2010), eating well (Schoenefeld & Webb, 2013), drinking less (Brooks et al., 2012) and going to the doctor more regularly (Terry et al., 2013).

5. “Self-compassion is a form of making excuses.” Self-compassion provides the safety needed to admit mistakes, rather than needing to blame someone else for them. Research shows that self-compassionate people take greater personal responsibility for their actions (Leary et al., 2007), and are more likely to apologize if they’ve offended someone (Brienes & Chen, 2012).

6. “Self-compassion will undermine motivation.” Most people believe self-criticism is an effective motivator, but it actually undermines self-confidence and leads to fear of failure. Motivation with self-compassion comes from the desire for health and well-being. It provides the emotionally supportive environment needed for change. It can be useful to consider the motivational impact of a harshly critical versus kind and supportive coach to make this point. Research shows that self-compassionate people are no less likely to have high personal standards; they just don’t beat themselves up when they fail (Neff, 2003b). This means they are less afraid of failure (Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2007) and are more likely to try again and to persist in their efforts after failing (Breines & Chen, 2012).


It’s important to know it’s normal to have these doubts or concerns; they are common and natural. In addition to the misgivings mentioned above, you may also notice that self-compassion makes you uneasy because you wonder if:

  • It will open me too much to the pain in life.
  • I will feel pathetic or needy.
  • It will cause old hurts to resurface.
  • It’s hard to practice.
  • I feel I don’t deserve it.

Utilizing these guided meditations will help to experience the benefit of these practices and ease discomfort around not feeling like you deserve self-compassion.


Exercises & Guided Meditations for Self-Compassion

The following resources can help guide you as you begin to practice self-compassion.

  1. Exercises and Guided Meditations from Kristin Neff
  2. Meditations and Resources from Tara Brach


3-Step Exercise for Self-Compassion

A simple 3-step process for practicing self-compassion also from Kristin Neff was shared by Brenda Fingold in a recent program offering mindfulness tips for parents in the legal profession:

  1. Acknowledge that this is suffering. “I want it to be different.”
  2. Remember common humanity – “So many working working parents are feeling this way! I feel for all of us.”
  3. Ask: “How can I care for myself in this moment?”



How Self-Compassion Can Make Us More Confident and Productive at Work (Thrive Global, 2020)

Why Self-Compassion — Not Self-Esteem — Leads to Success (BBC Worklife, 2021)


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Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here.

CATEGORIES: Relationships | Stress & Resilience | Well-Being
TAGS: self-care | self-compassion

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