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The Distinction Between Self-Care and Self-Compassion

I was a middle and high school Math Teacher for 15 years. I really valued my summer breaks.  I would spend that time doing a variety of things including: attending professional development, working summer enrichment programs, teaching summer school, coaching football and practicing self-care.  Like many educators, as the start of the school year approached, I would feel nice and relaxed, skin glowing, a little slimmer and ready to take on the year.  

That was until the night before the first day of school.  Whether it was the first week of Aug or just after Labor Day, all that self-care seemed to disappear and the feelings of stress and anxiety came flooding back. I’m not alone. My educator friends and colleagues (from classroom teachers to principals) have shared stories of experiencing sleepless nights, loss of appetite, panic attacks, and worse.  Some have called it the “back-to-school blues.”  

The root causes of the back-to-school blues can vary from educator to educator. Looking back over my time as a Black Male Educator, I now realize that mine was partially a result of working in schools where I experienced an unfavorable work culture. So unfavorable that it negatively impacted my social emotional development, professional growth and advancement opportunities in leadership, which is why I was feeling the stress.  

I thought my self-care practices were enough. But they weren’t. Sure, as the Summer closed, I felt rejuvenated, restored, and re-energized, but that feeling didn’t last. 

Over the past 6 years, I have been exploring “self-care”. In the process, I was introduced to “self-compassion”. Both are important practices for maintaining emotional and mental well-being, but they differ in their focus and approach.


According to the National Institute of Mental Health

Self-Care means “taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health.” 

Some examples of practicing self-care include: getting enough sleep, eating a good meal, exercising regularly, getting a massage, and engaging in hobbies or activities that bring joy and relaxation. The focus of self-care is on taking care of oneself in a practical sense, with an emphasis on meeting one’s basic needs.

I was doing this. 


On the other hand, according to Dr. Kristen Neff – a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, says that 

Self Compassion entails “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.” 

Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion Based Ethics describes self-compassion as  “an attitude of kindness toward the self in the face of life’s difficulties”  

The focus of self-compassion is on cultivating a positive and supportive relationship with oneself, even during difficult times. According to Dr. Neff, research indicates that “self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.” 

I was not doing this. 


Using the definitions above, I’m learning that self-care and self-compassion may overlap in some areas, but they are “distinct practices” that serve “different purposes”. Self-care appears to focus more on physical actions, while self-compassion appears to focus more on emotional regulation and cultivating a positive relationship with oneself. 

I talk about it more here:

That said, research indicates that both practices are important for overall well-being and can complement each other when practiced together.


I realize now that my self-care practices – exercising, eating healthy food, getting massages, going on vacations – were inconsistent at best with preparing me to face the unique and complex challenges of an unfavorable school work environment.  

I needed something else.  

That something us, for me, was practicing self-care AND self-compassion. 

So how did I begin cultivating self-compassion? 

In 2016, as the Assistant Director of the Georgia State University’s CREATE Teacher Residency Program, I was introduced to a course entitled Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT®). The CBCT® curriculum offered several core skills or insights for cultivating self-compassion.  The following are three of them:   

  • Attuning to my fundamental desire for wellbeing and avoiding harm and distress.
  • Accepting my limitations and vulnerabilities with kindness and understanding.
  • Embracing the truth that things are continually changing and that the events of my life are not 100% under my control.

Through expertly facilitated cooperative learning activities, reflective exercises and guided meditations around the insights above and many more that were not listed, I began to cultivate greater self-compassion. The course launched my journey towards greater emotional resilience and emotional regulation, especially when faced in challenging situations in both my personal and professional life.

I enjoyed CBCT® so much that I completed it 3 more times. Then in 2018, I became a Certified CBCT® Instructor. Today, I continue to teach CBCT®, as well as other meditation/wellness courses to educators, nonprofit leadership teams, and community advocates seeking to experience what it looks, sounds, and feels like to center self-compassion and compassion while being fiercely committed to racial equity. 

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