Self-Compassion: A Life-Changing Skill

It’s a cliche to say that we’re out own worst critics. But if you read the AllPsych blog very much, you know that psychology researchers are in the business of showing that a lot of the old cliches go a lot deeper than we might think.

Today’s exhibit is self-compassion. Most of the research coming out on this topic is suggesting that you can make a real difference in your life by showing yourself a little empathy.

That’s because self-compassion is linked with mental health in a general way: people who have higher self-compassion tend to have higher overall wellbeing and happiness. Giving yourself a fair shake can change your approach to life.

Don’t believe me? OK, here come the studies…

For starters, research published earlier this year found that a “harsh attitude towards oneself” was a strong predictor of depression and poor mood in the general population. Mindfulness also had significant influence, suggesting that a combination of high self-compassion and high mindfulness may be optimal for mental health.

Another study published this month showed that when women are feeling less self-compassionate than they usually do, interacting with people focused on their bodies makes them more concerned about their body image and lowers their mood. When they’re feeling more self-compassionate than normal, however, interacting with people focused on their bodies has no effect or sometimes even makes them appreciate their bodies more.

One researcher looked at self-compassion in older adults. She discovered that those who approached their relationships in more anxious and avoidant ways tended to have lower purpose in life, sense of mastery of their environment, personal growth, self-acceptance and overall quality of interpersonal relationships. However, what connected all these things to the way people approached their relationships was how much self-compassion the people felt.

Of course, there’s a natural question here: does becoming more self-compassionate actually make people happier, or does being happy just make people more self-compassionate?

Well, good news: self-compassion is a skill that can be learned.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers experimented with a six-week online course for teaching self-compassion. When the program ended, the 37 participants reported that they felt not just more self-compassionate but also happier, less stressed, less depressed and better at managing their emotions. Even better, they were still experiencing the benefits of their self-compassion training three months later!

So if self-compassion is such a powerful way of creating positive change in our lives, why isn’t everyone already going out of their way to cultivate empathy for themselves?

Recently, some psychologists from the United Kingdom did a survey to figure this out. They found that while most people think the world would be a better place if we were all a little more self-compassionate, people feel some reluctance about becoming more self-compassionate themselves.

Specifically, they think being more self-compassionate will make them more vulnerable and maybe even open them up to ridicule from others because they feel Western culture discourages self-compassion.

This suggests that if we’re serious about promoting a happier, healthier, less stressed society, we have to create a culture of self-compassion. And we can work toward that by being more self-compassionate as individuals.

Think about it, developing a self-compassionate approach to life is a win-win: not only are you an early adopter on the cutting edge, but you’ll be happier and less stressed out as a result!

Image: Flickr/Priya Saihgal under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0