Self-Control: Compassion Works

Many create New Year’s resolutions in hopes of a healthier lifestyle. But experience of past resolutions often reminds us that it can be daunting to keep up with new goals. As the year gets hectic, one’s ability to stick with resolutions may wane. How can we build staying power? One way is to develop our capacity for self-control.


Is it possible to acquire more self-control? According to a recent review of research on the subject, the practice of four emotional characteristics can enhance our self-control (Desteno, 2014):

Over the next few weeks Fuller Life will continue to explore these characteristics. Our last post focused on gratitude and this one is focused on compassion.

Compassion and Self-Compassion

Compassion is an emotion that involves noticing and feeling moved to care. The first part is to notice and see another person in the midst of their suffering, frustration, disappointment, grief or hurt. When we allow ourselves to turn toward and notice another person, we are naturally moved to respond to a fellow human being with care and concern.

Self-compassion is the same thing. The only difference is allowing ourselves to see our own struggle, and respond to ourselves with care. When we learn to respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we calm the body and create space to respond courageously with our best selves. This is not the same as self-pity.

“Self-compassion isn’t poor me. Self-compassion is: ‘It’s hard for all of us… the human experience is hard for me, for you, this is the way life is.’ It’s a much more connected way of relating to yourself. And this is why mindfulness is so important. When we are mindful of our suffering, we see it as it is, we don’t ignore it, but we also don’t over exaggerate.” Kristin Neff

How Can We Build Compassion For Others?

One way we can build compassion for others is to practice on ourselves. We can be our worst critic and beat up on ourselves when we fall short on hopes and goals. When we talk to ourselves with criticism and self-judgment, we fuel anger and anxiety. We can even increase the odds that we will get frustrated and want to quit.

Kristin Neff has found that “people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.” She also found that “people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, and are more motivated to achieve their goals.” (Randall, 2013)

Here are some tools to get started:

  • A quiz to assess your current level of self-compassion.
  • A self-compassion exercise to get a small hint of what this looks like in practice: Self-Compassion Exercise
  • Compassion Meditations designed to increase experience of compassion for self and others.

Time to Slow Down

In a recent TED talk, Daniel Goleman explored the things that keep us from compassion. One of the main obstacles is being in a hurry.

A group of divinity students at the Princeton Theological Seminary were told that they were going to give a practice sermon and they were each given a sermon topic. Half of those students were given, as a topic, the parable of the Good Samaritan: the man who stopped to help the stranger in need by the side of the road. Half were given random Bible topics. Then one by one, they were told they had to go to another building and give their sermon. As they went from the first building to the second, each of them passed a man who was bent over and moaning, clearly in need. The question is: Did they stop to help? The more interesting question is: Did it matter they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan? Answer: No, not at all. What turned out to determine whether someone would stop and help a stranger in need was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. And this is, I think, the predicament of our lives: that we don’t take every opportunity to help because our focus is in the wrong direction.” (Goleman, 2007)

The conclusion of the experiment was that the student’s compassion was not significantly influenced by studying the passage on compassion, but more by the student’s belief that they were in too much of a hurry.

When we get overwhelmed or in a rush, this impacts our ability to be present and compassionate with ourselves, and others we care about. One way to build compassion is to slow down the pace of life. Leo Babauta has some great ideas for how to slow things down.

Over the next few weeks, we will continue to explore characteristics that develop our capacity for self-control such as authentic pride, and guilt. Fuller Life Family Therapy is here to support and encourage those on their journey toward a fuller life.

More Resources on Building Compassion

Desteno, D. (2014) A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses. Pacific Standard, The Science of Society. (

Goleman, D. (2007). TED. (

Contributed by:

Jennifer Christian, M.A., LPC

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