I was delighted to see a recent article in a psychology journal that offers scientific evidence that being nice to ourselves is a more skillful way of dealing with our screw-ups than being hard on ourselves. Most of us fear that if we take the pressure off ourselves, we will screw up even worse. Not so, says this article. In fact, it is self-criticism actually increases the likelihood that you’ll screw up even more. Hard to believe? Read on.
Being kind to oneself doesn’t come easily to most people. We tend to be much better at caring for others. History reveals evidence of humans and other species showing kindness toward one another. Our primate relatives groom one another and care for their young. Fossil evidence has shown that at least a million years ago, early humans cared for others with severe physical deformities. Those social behaviors seem rooted in our brain physiology. It’s obvious from both psychology and physiology, that we’re intrinsically compassionate beings. (Gilbert)
Why then the disconnect when it comes to being compassionate toward ourselves? While we might have no trouble telling a friend who’s messed up not to beat themselves up about it, we have a surprisingly hard time turning that advice toward ourselves. We are often harder on ourselves than we are on others. Some people who grew up in supportive homes with understanding parents are more likely to be kind to themselves, but the majority of us are not very compassionate toward ourselves. Self-compassion is something that actually needs to be taught to most people, especially people who tend to be self-critical, anxious or depressed. (Neff)
The reverse is also true, i.e., the kinder a person is to him/herself, the higher the sense of emotional well-being they have. For example, in a study of women who were HIV positive, it was found that the women with a high degree of compassion for themselves tended to practice safe sex and disclose their HIV status to sexual partners more frequently than the women who showed little compassion for themselves. The benefits of our being compassionate toward ourselves carry over into our self-care and regard for others. (Leary)
People who are compassionate to themselves are also more likely to seek medical care if they need it. The more self-critical a person is, the more unlikely they are to seek care. In one study of elderly people, those with health problems and a healthy sense of self compassion reported similar levels of happiness and emotional well-being as those of elderly people who had NO health problems. The researcher suggested: “It’s like self-compassion erases the emotional fallout of some of the problems associated with aging.” (Leary)
In a study related to eating behavior, female college students were asked to eat doughnuts in what was described as a taste-test experiment. One group of the women were “conditioned for self-compassion” by statements from the test administrators such as “Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff, so there’s no reason to feel bad about it.” Another group of women were not “conditioned” with these statements. After the doughnut test, all the women were asked to participate in a taste test of various candies. The group of women who were “conditioned for self-compassion” ate less candy than the women who were not “conditioned for self-compassion”. Previous studies have shown that people who are recurrent dieters do tend to overeat unhealthy foods after a “slip.” One suggested explanation is that dieters are already feeling guilty about the first slip, and that they engage in more ‘emotional eating’ to deal with the pain of the guilt. This study suggests that self-compassion may limit the distress that leads to later emotional eating binges. (Leary)
Overweight individuals aren’t the only ones with something to gain from a kinder-to-self approach. A growing body of research suggests that self-compassion offers the same positive benefits of self-esteem — without the negatives. (The negatives to self-esteem can be seen in people who appear arrogant and in people whose self-esteem is dependent upon approval or success.) Self-compassion is a way to develop healthy self-esteem that does not have the negative aspects that the more tenuous kinds of self-esteem can have. Another benefit of self-compassion vs. self-esteem is that all too often a high sense of self-esteem encourages attempts to weed out all the negatives about oneself in order to become perfect. Self-compassion is based more on a sense of wholeness, acknowledging that all of us are human and so susceptible to human error and imperfection. (Neff)
Definition of Self-Compassion
One researcher posits that self-compassion has three main components. One is to be understanding [toward yourself] rather than self-judgmental. “Most people’s internal dialogue is actually quite harsh,” she says. “The self-kindness part requires reframing your dialogue so that you’re kind and supportive [toward yourself].” (Neff)
The second component involves framing your personal experience as a typical human experience. When something goes awry — your car breaks down on the highway, say, or you get passed over for a promotion at work — a common emotional reaction is “Why me?” The sense that things aren’t going the way they should can lead to a sense of isolation, which often leads to depression and anxiety. The opposite of that reaction is recognizing that all humans experience frustration, disappointment and rejection at some point. You can let the suffering that being human entails comfort you in your own suffering. And you can then let the compassion you feel for yourself spread out to all human beings who suffer in the same way you do. Then, rather than feeling isolated in your suffering, you can actually use compassion to help you feel connected to others. (Neff)
The third element of self-compassion involves awareness. On one hand, you must be aware of self-criticism in order to curtail it. But mindfulness also requires that you see things as they truly are, instead of exaggerating a situation or adopting a “poor-me” attitude. A clear perspective is crucial because it will help you understand the difference between healthy self-compassion and unhealthy self-pity. (Neff)
Self-compassion is a very old Buddhist idea which has only recently begun to be looked at from a research perspective. Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin, is one of the researchers exploring the area. After defining self-compassion from an academic perspective, she developed a scale to measure it and many researchers have used that scale in subsequent studies. By far most of the findings support the idea that self-compassion is linked to a number of positive mental health outcomes, including increased happiness, optimism and social connectedness. People who score high on self-compassion also tend to suffer less from anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure.
Dr. Neff has also developed a training program to teach people to practice self-compassion. She suggests starting on paper. For example, say you’re upset that you made a big mistake at work. What would your most supportive friend say about the experience? Write down everything this friend might say to you, from his or her point of view. Then read the letter back to yourself — and try to take the words to heart. To get more exercises for increasing self-compassion, you can go to You Tube and search under Kristin Neff. She has a variety of training videos available.
Although there is more research that needs to be done, it seems clear that cultivating self-kindness is well worth the effort. As Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., another researcher says, “If you have a kind, encouraging, supporting part to you, you’ll be OK. If you have a bully that kicks you every time you fall over, then you’re going to struggle.”
More Good News – There’s No Bad News
What are the downsides of self-compassion? None have been found so far — and not for lack of trying. Initially another researcher, Mark Leary, Ph.D. suspected as I did that self-compassion might be linked to self-indulgence. If you’re too nice to yourself, he theorized, you can let yourself off the hook no matter what you’ve done wrong. To his surprise, he found just the opposite. People high in self-compassion take more responsibility for the bad things that happen to them than those who do not have high self compassion. One reason low-compassion people might deny responsibility for bad things is that they have a mistaken sense of responsibility – they expect too much of themselves and then feel horribly bad if they’re not perfect. People high in self-compassion, however, can admit their mistakes without all that self-flagellation.
Perhaps an amendment to the Golden Rule might be “Treat yourself as kindly as you would want others to treat you.”
Information in the above article was taken from the Monitor of Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association, Vol. 42, No. 7, July 2011, p. 42. Science Watch: “Golden Rule Redux” by Kristen Weir.
Major sources cited in the article were:
Fain, Jean, Ph.D. (2010) The Self-Compassion Diet.
Gilbert, Paul, PhD, (2009) The Compassionate Mind.
Leary, Mary, Ph.D. (2007) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 5).
Leary, Mark, Ph.D.(2007) The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.
Leary, Mark, PhD., and Adams, Claire (2007). Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 26, No. 10),
Kristin Neff, Ph.D. (2003). Self and Identity (Vol. 2, No. 2–3)
Neff, Kristin, Ph.D. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” (2011).
Neff, Kristin, Ph.D. (2009) Human Development (Vol. 52, No. 4).