Self-Compassion, Self-Coldness and Seeking Help

There’s a good chance you’ve heard about self-compassion, which has been increasingly seen as important by psychologists in recent years. Even if you haven’t, you probably have some intuitive understanding of what it is and why it might be important for mental health.

A related idea that’s less talked about is self-coldness. Where self-compassion is about being willing to extend a positive sense of understanding, empathy and encouragement to yourself, self-coldness is treating yourself with a negative attitude involving self-judgment and over-identification with disliked aspects of yourself.

It might sound like self-compassion and self-coldness are exact opposites, simply two sides of the same coin, but some research suggests that these are distinct traits – in other words, that someone can score high on both self-compassion and self-coldness, or low on both.

For example, a 2018 study suggests that self-coldness is more closely related to depressive symptoms than self-compassion. Another study provides context for this finding by showing that self-coldness tends to predict negative symptoms of distress while self-compassion predicts positive aspects of wellbeing.

Recently, a group of researchers at University of Kentucky decided to investigate whether self-compassion and self-coldness are factors in how likely college students are to seek professional mental health support. This is an important question because, as I wrote about last week, college students are a group with pressing mental health needs. Plus, whatever factors make college students more likely to seek out mental health professionals might help the rest of us seek out support as well.

Consistent with the idea that self-compassion and self-coldness are separate traits, the researchers found that both were unique factors in whether students turned to mental health professionals for help. Given the same levels of mental health, students who had higher levels of self-compassion were more likely to seek help while students with higher levels of self-coldness were less likely.

That suggests interventions designed to broadly help college students develop self-compassion and challenge the negative self-beliefs associated with self-coldness might enable those students to more easily seek support when they need it. For those of us who aren’t college students, this study highlights the importance of learning to treat ourselves with the same empathy we’d extend to others.

Of course, working with a therapist can help in this regard. If working with a mental health professional can help with building self-compassion, and if building self-compassion makes it easier to seek professional help, that would seek to suggest that working with a professional to challenge self-critical habits can open the door to later on obtaining help in other areas as well!