Being kind to yourself may sound like something out of a nursery school. But even cynics should value self-compassion if they want to be resilient.
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Consider the last time you failed or made a critical error. Do you still feel ashamed and chastise yourself for being so stupid or selfish? Do you ever feel alone in your failure, as if you were the only one who made a mistake? Or do you accept that making mistakes is a natural part of being human and try to speak to yourself with care and tenderness?
For many people, the harshest judgmental responses come naturally. Indeed, We may even take pride in being harsh on ourselves as a sign of our determination to be our best selves. However, a wealth of research shows that self-criticism frequently backfires – disastrously. It can increase procrastination and make us less able to achieve our goals in the future, in addition to increasing our unhappiness and stress levels.
Instead of chastising ourselves, we should practise self-compassion: greater forgiveness of our mistakes, as well as a conscious effort to care for ourselves during times of disappointment or embarrassment. “Most of us have a good friend in our lives who is kind of unconditionally supportive,” says Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the researchers behind this study. “Learning to be that same warm, supportive friend to yourself is self-compassion.”
If you are a cynic, you may be put off by the idea at first. “When I hear of people being kind to themselves,” British comedian Ruby Wax wrote in her book on mindfulness. I imagine the kinds of people who light scented candles in their bathrooms and sink into a tub of Himalayan foetal yak milk.” Nonetheless, scientific evidence suggests that it can improve our emotional resilience as well as our health, wellbeing, and productivity. Most importantly, it allows us to learn from the mistakes that caused our dissatisfaction in the first place.
Relying on self-compassion, not self-esteem
A personal crisis inspired Neff’s research. She was going through a difficult divorce in the late 1990s. “It was very messy, and I was very ashamed of some bad decisions I had made.” She enrolled in meditation classes at a local Buddhist centre as a stress-reduction measure. Although mindfulness practise provided some relief, it was their teachings about compassion, particularly the need to direct that kindness toward ourselves, that provided the most solace. “It made an instant difference,” she says.
On the surface, self-compassion may appear to be similar to the concept of’self-esteem,’ which is concerned with how much we value ourselves and whether we see ourselves positively. Questionnaires to measure self-esteem ask participants to rate statements such as, “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others”.
Unfortunately, this is frequently accompanied by a sense of competition, which can easily result in a kind of fragile narcissism that crumbles in the face of potential failure. “Self-esteem is dependent on success and people liking you, so it is not very stable – you could have it on a good day but lose it on a bad day,” Neff explains. When their self-esteem is threatened, many people with high self-esteem resort to aggression and bullying..
A wealth of research shows that self-criticism often backfires – badly
Cultivating self-compassion, Neff realised, might help you avoid those traps, so you can pick yourself up when you’re hurt, embarrassed, or ashamed – without bringing others down with you. So she devised a psychological scale to assess the trait, in which participants rated a series of statements on a scale of 1 (almost never) to 5 (almost always), such as:
- I try to be loving toward myself when I’m feeling emotional pain
- I try to see my failings as part of the human condition
- When something painful happens, I try to take a balanced view of the situation
- I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies
- When I think about my inadequacies it tends to make me feel more separate and cut off from the rest of the world
- When I’m feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong
The higher your self-compassion, the more you agree with the first set of statements and the less you agree with the second set of statements.
Neff’s initial research looked at how self-compassion affected people’s overall mental health and well-being. She discovered the trait was negatively correlated with reports of depression and anxiety, and positively correlated with general life satisfaction after interviewing hundreds of undergraduate students. This study also confirmed that self-compassion differed from measures of self-esteem. In other words, you could have someone who has a general sense of superiority but struggles to forgive themselves for perceived failures – a far from ideal combination.
Later research confirmed these findings in larger samples ranging from high school students to suicidal US veterans, all of which demonstrated that self-compassion increases psychological resilience. Indeed, self-compassion is now a thriving field of study, attracting the attention of numerous other researchers.
Some of the most intriguing findings concern people’s physical health, with one recent study finding that people with high self-compassion are less likely to report a variety of ailments, including back pain, headache, nausea, and respiratory problems. Previous research has shown that self-compassion reduces the inflammation that normally comes with mental anguish, which can damage our tissues in the long run. However, the health benefits could be due to behavioural differences, as evidence suggests that people with higher self-compassion take better care of their bodies through diet and exercise.