Self-Compassion, Part II: Recognizing Your Limits

painting white heart on wallMost people would agree that having a compassionate stance towards oneself is desirable. But how do you cultivate self-compassion?

Let’s quickly define the term. In this article, “compassion” means tenderhearted recognition of pain or distress, coupled with a desire to alleviate it. Each component of this definition—recognition, tenderheartedness, and a desire to alleviate distress—offers opportunities for cultivating compassion. This article will look at how the skill of “recognition” can help you grow self-compassion.

The ability to recognize your pain or distress requires that you embrace your limits. Each of us has inherent human limits, as well as personal limits that are rooted in our personalities, life experiences, knowledge, skill levels, and more.

For example, one obvious human limit is that everyone needs sleep on a regular and consistent basis. A less obvious human limit is that everyone needs some amount of play. Other examples may include the amount of money you need in your savings account in order to feel prepared for a “rainy day,” your tolerance for grumpy individuals, the patience you have for slow drivers, and more.

Some people have a difficult time accepting these human and personal limits. This desire to have no limits stems from a variety of sources. One common reason is that people confuse limits, which are neutral facts, with weaknesses. To put it another way, some people (falsely) believe that if they have limits, they are somehow flawed, weak, insufficient, or not capable of great things—therefore, they deny the reality of their limits. Denying your limits does not enhance your worth or value, but does block you from having genuine self-compassion.

By recognizing that you have limits, you can notice when you have been pushed beyond them, and then deem your ensuing emotions as legitimate. For example, if you know one of your limits is that you need a break every three or four hours of work, and you have to work a full day without breaks, you will know it is legitimate to feel exhausted.

Understanding this emotional distress as legitimate sets you up for the next component of compassion, which is tenderheartedness. In order for you to have compassion towards your distress, you must recognize your distress as legitimate: worth noticing, worth caring about, worth turning towards, and worth alleviating. It is by acknowledging, accepting, and allowing your limits to exist that you bestow legitimacy onto your distress.

Another piece of “recognition” is granting yourself permission to accept your limits as they are in the here and now. Your limits are not what you desire them to be or think they should be. Some limits, such as how much sleep you need, cannot be changed. Other limits, like patience for slow drivers, can be changed—but regardless of the flexibility of the limit in question, if you’ve exceeded your limit, you are beyond it.

While it is entirely appropriate, and a sign of maturity, to work on expanding limits, you can’t do that by denying that you have exceeded a limit. Instead, practice noticing when you have passed a limit and acknowledging it, instead of judging yourself harshly for having it in the first place. Rather than berating yourself for being exhausted at the end of a work day that had no breaks, recognize that you are bone-tired not because you are incompetent, but because you eclipsed your work-break limit.

Self-compassion is grounded in the ability to recognize that you are in pain or distress and that this pain or distress deserves and requires attention. Recognizing your limits as they are in this moment in time, personally and as a human being, allows you to acknowledge the legitimacy of your pain and the ensuing need to attend to your distress. You are entirely capable of growing into a person with more self-compassion, and I encourage you in this work. If you desire or need the guidance of a trained professional, do not hesitate to reach out.

© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Naomi

    September 3rd, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    A wonderful way to explain about compassion, Susanne!

    And the thing about self-compassion and showing with examples from our daily life is what made me grasp it.

    you know,not all of us feel compassion with the same intensity but what I do know for sure is that each one of us has some soft spot for something that can really bring out the compassion in us. And this something is decided by our life experiences.

  • Michelle

    September 4th, 2011 at 5:23 AM

    I know that for me when I was trying to be that superwoman I always felt horrible about myself and the things that I was accomplishing. I was constantly letting myself down and felt like I was letting others down too. I know now that that is not true, but it took a lot of letting all that go before I could move forward. And during that time i was paralyzed with fear that no one was going to love me anymore because i was giving up some of the things for them that I had always done. But I felt like by giving too much that was not allowing me to do the other things really well. So I have cut back and feel much better about me and the things that I do now.

  • Sammi

    September 10th, 2011 at 10:51 PM

    You’ve defined compassion very well. The word is thrown around quite a bit but never have I thought or cared about what it meant. Compassion to me is putting off the distress of not being wealthy by working to alleviate this distress i.e. becoming wealthy.

    We all have limits even though a few years back I would have disagreed. When you finally accept that you have limits you’ll find that your much happier. Never again will you have to do silly things like compete with yourself.

    I’ve accepted the following facts as true.
    1. I can’t do everything myself even if I can do it better.
    2. If I don’t know what I’m doing in a particular field I should seek the help of someone who does
    3. If I work to much I cannot be productive.

  • Augusto

    August 18th, 2015 at 6:17 AM

    I believe that the problem is clear
    But solutions not for this cases.
    One can be the cost of being help monetarily
    and exposed when you not sure what is your real capacity to resolve your own problems and limits.

  • Brandy V.

    February 27th, 2016 at 10:30 AM

    Excellent article! Our culture continually tells us to push past limits and a well placed push can help us expand, but when done regularly as a lifestyle, it leads to poor health, reduced enjoyment in life and less connection to others.

  • Jennifer

    April 4th, 2016 at 3:50 PM

    Thank you….I agree I thought pushing the limits lead to positive outcomes. I guess finding balance in all of that is so key long-term.

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