Do you treat other people kindly—and yourself as well? Or rather, are you often self-critical and self-berating? These questions center on the trait known as self-compassion, a topic of growing interest in positive psychology today. The ability to treat oneself with caring, concern, and kindness, has been the subject of mounting scientific studies during the past twelve years. Research has consistently shown self-compassion to be linked to greater life satisfaction, optimism, agreeableness, and wisdom. It’s also associated with lower anxiety and depression—as well as serving as an important buffer when stressful situations inevitably arise in daily living.
The world’s leading investigator of self-compassion is Dr Christina Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. She first became interested in the topic in the late 1990s, while participating as a graduate student in “Insight Meditation” sessions, during a contentious divorce. “I had a lot of stress in my life,” she recalled in an interview. “I really needed self-compassion to get me through all the emotional turmoil. I was in a Buddhist group and they talked about mindfulness and compassion. The self-compassion bit really hit me almost immediately. I just thought, wow, I have the right to compassion like everyone else.” Several years later, Neff received another life-jolt when she and her husband learned that their son has autism. “And again,” she recollected, “It just saved me, giving myself the time to deal with my grief… I would just send myself compassion quite intensely. It just saved me, so I know that it works.”
Since 2003, Neff and her colleagues have conducted dozens of studies to establish the scientific validity and significance of self-compassion as a personality trait. In her view, self-compassion comprises three distinct but inter-related aspects: 1) self-kindness; 2) a sense of common humanity; and 3) mindfulness or the ability to face painful thoughts and feelings without exaggeration, drama, or self-pity.
Self-kindness involves caring and understanding toward oneself, as well as self-soothing—as opposed to constant self-blaming and being overly tough on oneself. The result? Greater equanimity. Having a sense of shared humanity (“Everyone makes mistakes in life,” “We’re all here to learn lessons in order to gain wisdom.”) helps us to transcend mere self-acceptance to realize that flaws and imperfections are basic to the human condition. For instance, this mindset means recognizing that our personal thoughts, feelings, and actions are impacted by external forces such as parenting history, culture, genetic and environmental influences. Such an awareness strengthens our feelings of connectedness to others and reduces aloofness.
Finally, the ability to acknowledge upsetting thoughts or experiences with a balanced perspective, serves as an antidote to both emotional suppression and fixated thinking. It involves observing our negative thoughts and feelings with openness and clarity, so that they’re held in mindful awareness—yet simultaneously, refraining from over-identifying with them. Working together, these three components facilitate a recognition of reality as it is—and enhance our ability to respond effectively in a variety of life situations.
It’s important to understand that self-compassion isn’t the same as self-pity: basically an egocentric behavior entwined with feelings of isolation and sadness. An attitude of self-pity denies that others on this planet are experiencing the same—or possibly even worse—stressful problems or challenges. It ignores our interconnections with others. Nor is self-pity the same as self-indulgence. Many people say that they’re reluctant to be self-compassionate because they’re fearful of surrendering to wasteful or harmful kinds of behavior (“I’m feeling stressed out today, so I’ll just stay home, watch TV all day, and eat a pint of ice-cream.”). But such an attitude is self-indulgence—not self-compassion—because it leads to weakness rather than strength in the long run. Advising your best friend to eat junk food when feeling upset wouldn’t be considered a compassionate response. So if self-compassion is tantamount to treating yourself as your best friend, you’d urge yourself to take a walk, exercise in a gym, or do something creatively interesting to climb out of a bad mood.
Not surprisingly, low self-compassion has been implicated as a major factor in eating disorders. As suggested by Drs Michail Mantzios and Janet Wilson at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, obese people may lack the ability to self-sooth effectively—therefore using the external means of food to do so. Yet, since obesity often results in stigmatization, isolation, and shame, such persons actually increase their emotional distress by indulging in excessive food intake. Then they eat to relieve their exacerbated negative feelings, and the vicious cycle escalates.
Empirical support exists for this notion. In an experimental study led by Dr Claire Adams at Louisiana State University, college women with restrictive eating tendencies (seeking to avoid unhealthy foods) experienced reduced stress and less eating after self-compassionate thinking, compared to control groups. In interpreting this finding, the researchers commented that, “In general, people who treat themselves with compassion when they overeat might be more successful at regulating their eating because they are less motivated to eat in order to cope with negative self-feelings, and this might be particularly true of restrictive eaters.”
Increasing evidence has also amassed on the role of self-compassion in affecting our overall health. In a study led by Dr Fuschia Sirois at Bishop’s University in Canada, self-compassion was positively linked with such health-promoting habits as moderate eating and avoidance of junk foods, regular physical exercise, adequate sleep, and effective stress management. And, in an investigation conducted in Australia, Drs Wendy Phillips and Susan Ferguson found self-compassion among men and women aged 65 and older, to be significantly linked with positive emotionality such as happiness, strong self-identity, and sense of life meaning—and negatively associated with emotions such as anger and regret.
Among the greatest obstacles to self-compassion is perfectionism. No human being can ever be perfect—not only overall, but in any endeavor. I strongly believe that we all should strive to develop our talents and abilities to the fullest. But even Abraham Maslow’s sample of high-achieving, self-fulfilled men and women comprised of people who were far from perfect. Indeed, Maslow wisely warned against the drive for perfection, for recent research in positive psychology shows that perfectionists are less happy than others.
In this activity, identify an aspect of your life in which you’re often—or even always—too hard on yourself due to perfectionism. This might involve work, leisure pursuits, family or other social relations—the crucial factor being that you’re too demanding of yourself and fail to allow yourself to rest, relax, or make mistakes. More specifically, describe a situation in the past month in which you permitted perfectionism to affect your mood or interactions with other persons. What was the activity and setting? Who, if anyone else, was with you? Looking back now in hindsight, what could you have done instead to keep perfectionism at bay—and treat yourself more kindly?
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at email@example.com