Remember the last time you failed or made a crucial error. Do you still feel embarrassed and chastise yourself for being so foolish or self-centered? Do you frequently feel isolated in that mistake, as if you were the only one who made a mistake? Or do you try to speak to yourself with kindness and care while acknowledging that making mistakes is a natural aspect of being human?
The harshest judgmental answers come naturally to many people. We might even take satisfaction in being tough on ourselves since it shows our drive and resolves to be the best versions of ourselves. But a lot of research by Kristin Neff and others demonstrates that self-compassion is much more effective and that self-criticism frequently backfires—badly. In addition to raising our feelings of stress and dissatisfaction, self-criticism can lead to more procrastination and reduce our chances of achieving our goals in the future.
Instead of criticizing ourselves, we should engage in self-compassion: a higher capacity for forgiving of our transgressions, and a conscious effort to care for ourselves when we experience disappointment or humiliation. The researcher behind this work, Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, asserts that “most of us have a terrific buddy in our life, who is kind of unconditionally supportive.” “Learning to be that same kind, caring friend to yourself is the practice of self-compassion.”
According to scientific research, it can boost our capacity for handling difficult emotions and enhance our productivity as well as our overall health. Importantly, it also enables us to draw lessons from the errors that initially led to our annoyance.
Using self-compassion instead of self-esteem
A personal catastrophe served as the impetus for Neff’s research. She describes how she was going through a difficult divorce in the late 1990s. She enrolled in meditation sessions at a nearby Buddhist centre to find a way to deal with the stress. Even if practicing mindfulness helped to some extent, their lessons on compassion, particularly the importance of showing oneself kindness, were what provided the most consolation.
Self-compassion may initially sound similar to the idea of “self-esteem,” which is concerned with how highly we regard and perceive ourselves. Participants are asked to score statements like “I believe that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others” in self-esteem questionnaires.
Researchers Aiden P. Gregg and Constantine Sedkides found that this frequently comes with a sense of competition and can easily lead to a form of fragile narcissism that crumbles with potential defeat. Their findings were published in the journal Self and Identity.
According to Neff, “Self-esteem is not stable — you could have it on a good day but lose it on a poor day. It is dependent on achievement and people loving you.” According to research by Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, and Joseph M. Boden that was published in Psychological Review, many persons with high self-esteem even turn to aggressiveness and bullying when their confidence is threatened.
Neff realized that developing self-compassion can help you avoid those pitfalls and allow you to lift yourself when you feel hurt, embarrassed, or ashamed without putting other people down in the process. To gauge this trait, she came up with a psychological scale that asked participants to assess a series of phrases on a range from 1 (nearly never) to 5 (almost always), such as:
- “I strive to be compassionate toward myself while I’m feeling emotional pain.”
- “ I make an effort to view my shortcomings as inherent to being human.”
- “When something distressing occurs, I make an effort to maintain perspective. “
- “ I am critical of and judgemental of my shortcomings.”
- “Thinking about my shortcomings tends to increase my sense of isolation from the rest of the world.”
- “When I’m depressed, I tend to focus on and obsess about everything wrong.”
Neff says your level of self-compassion will be higher if you agree with the first set of statements more than the second group of claims.
The earliest research by Neff, which was published in the journal Self and Identity, looked at the relationship between self-compassion and people’s general mental health and well-being. The attribute was shown to be favourably connected with overall life satisfaction and negatively correlated with reports of despair and anxiety after she surveyed hundreds of undergraduate students.
It’s significant that this study also demonstrated that self-compassion differed from tests of self-esteem. As Neff explained in her research, which she conducted with colleagues Kristin L. Kirkpatrick and Stephanie S. Rude and published in the Journal of Research in Personality, you could have someone with a general sense of superiority who nonetheless finds it extremely difficult to forgive themselves for perceived failures.
Later studies by Neff and Pittman McGehee replicated these findings in a wider range of populations, including high school students and US veterans at risk of suicide. They all demonstrated that psychological resilience is increased by self-compassion. Self-compassion research is currently booming and piquing the interest of numerous other researchers.
A recent study by Sara Dunne and colleagues, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, shows that people with high levels of self-compassion are less likely to report a variety of different ailments, such as back pain, headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems. These findings are among the most intriguing findings in the study.
A reduced stress response could be one reason, as prior research has shown that self-compassion lessens the inflammation that is typically associated with mental distress and which can long-term harm our tissues. However, there is data that suggests people with higher levels of self-compassion take better care of their bodies through nutrition and exercise. These behavioural variations may potentially contribute to the health advantages.
According to psychologist Sara Dunne, who conducted research on the relationship between self-compassion and healthy behaviours, “those who have higher levels of self-compassion are generally more proactive.” She likens it to parental guidance that is meant to be helpful. They would advise you to go to bed, rise early, and then deal with your issues, she claims. Similarly to this, a person with great self-compassion is aware of how to treat themselves with kindness while also understanding what is ultimately best for them.
Neff argues that this is crucial since some of her early detractors had questioned if practising self-compassion would only result in slothful behaviour and weak will. They contend that to spur us on to make significant changes in our lives, we need self-criticism. She cites 2012 research that revealed that those with high levels of self-compassion are more motivated to fix their mistakes as evidence refuting this claim.
After failing a significant test, for example, they frequently worked more and were more motivated to make up for a perceived moral breach, such as violating a friend’s confidence. It seems that self-compassion might foster a sense of safety that enables us to face our flaws and make progress in our lives as opposed to overly defending ourselves or languishing in pessimism.
There is now plenty of evidence that self-compassion can be learned, as demonstrated by James N. Kirby’s research, which was published in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy. If you would like to reap some of these benefits, Neff’s research team and many others have all contributed to this understanding. One of the most well-liked remedies is “loving-kindness meditation,” which directs you to concentrate on sentiments of warmth and forgiveness toward yourself and others.
Tobias Krieger and associates at the University of Bern in Switzerland developed an online course to teach this exercise along with more theoretical teachings about the reasons for self-criticism and its effects for a recent study that was published in the journal Behavior Therapy. They discovered significant increases in the participants’ self-compassion scores after seven sessions, associated with a decline in stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. According to Krieger, “we measured a lot of outcomes, and they all went in the expected direction.”
Serena Chen, writing in Harvard Business Review, argues the following: “When we experience a setback at work, we tend to either become defensive and blame others, or berate ourselves. Neither response is helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning. Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development.
Research shows that we should respond instead with self-compassion. People who do this tend to demonstrate three behaviors: First, they are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes; second, they recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and third, they take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short—they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don’t let negative emotions take over.
Self-compassion boosts performance by triggering the “growth mindset”—the belief that improvement is achievable through dedication and hard work. It also helps us connect with a more authentic self.”
Much of the research in self-compassion has been conducted utilizing the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS), which was designed to assess trait levels of self-compassion.
This scale was developed to evaluate thoughts, emotions and certain behaviors associated with different components of self-compassion.
The scale includes items such as measuring how often people respond to feelings of inadequacy or suffering. and also measures mindfulness, self-kindness, and self-judgment.
For example, someone who feels inadequate may judge themselves harshly when they are feeling emotional pain, instead of trying to be loving and kind.
Self-judgment may come into play when someone judges their own inadequacies and flaws harshly. Mindfulness also comes into play, by helping one take a more balanced viewpoint if something painful does occur.
Harvard psychologist Christopher Germer, in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, suggests that there are five ways to bring self-compassion into your life: via physical, mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual methods. He and other experts have proposed a variety of ways to foster self-compassion. Here are a few:
- Comfort your body. Eat something healthy. Lie down and rest your body. Massage your own neck, feet, or hands. Take a walk. Anything you can do to improve how you feel physically gives you a dose of self-compassion.
- Write a letter to yourself. Describe a situation that caused you to feel pain (a breakup with a lover, a job loss, a poorly received presentation). Write a letter to yourself describing the situation without blaming anyone. Acknowledge your feelings.
- Give yourself encouragement. If something bad or painful happens to you, think of what you would say to a good friend if the same thing happened to him or her. Direct these compassionate responses toward yourself.
- Practice mindfulness. This is the nonjudgmental observation of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions, without trying to suppress or deny them. When you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, accept the bad with the good with a compassionate attitude.
Neff adds that written interventions can also be quite effective, such as writing a letter from the viewpoint of a caring friend. The practice of self-criticism does not appear to be irreparably rooted in the majority of people. (Neff’s website provides further in-depth instructions on how to practise both this and loving-kindness meditation.)
Neff claims that during the pandemic, there has been a rise in interest in these methods. The challenges of solitude, remote work, and providing for those we love have created the ideal environment for self-criticism and doubt for many of us. Even while we cannot eliminate these stresses, we can at least alter how we see ourselves, which will give us the fortitude to meet the obstacles head-on.
The need for self-compassion and self-care is more than ever, according to Neff. “At this time, the body of data is very overwhelming and demonstrates the need to practice self-compassion. It will help you become stronger, ” she says.