The psychological benefits of self-compassion

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Tamara Rosner, Health, Medicine & Veterinary Science Editor

Imagine that you’re scrolling through Instagram, being bombarded with pictures of other people living happy, successful, full, and beautiful lives. It’s natural to compare yourself to these images and feel that you’re not as exciting, or successful, or beautiful, which can make you feel worthless.

You could ignore these feelings and tell yourself you’re being silly or stupid.

Or this mood could take over, and your whole day could be spent feeling inadequate.

Or maybe you acknowledge that it’s okay to feel a little insecure, and you remind yourself that this is a common experience that a lot of people deal with.

This final response is an example of self-compassion, which involves practicing kindness and understanding on your own behalf when you’re feeling distress or experiencing failure. Self-compassion has three components:

  1. Self-kindness – being kind and gentle with yourself when experiencing failure or suffering
  2. Common humanity – recognizing that your experience is not unique and that all people have setbacks and experience feelings of inadequacy
  3. Mindfulness – being able to “ride the wave” of emotions and acknowledge them without judgment

Self-compassion is different from self-esteem, as self-esteem is contingent on positive self-evaluation and performance. It is also different from self-pity, where we might fail to acknowledge that we are not alone, instead imagining our situation is uniquely terrible.

Put simply, self-compassion can be thought of as treating yourself the way you’d treat a friend in a similar situation: being kind and non-judgmental, and reminding them that they’re not alone.

Recently, clinical psychologists and researchers have started to explore the importance of self-compassion to our mental well-being. Self-compassion has been linked to increased resilience to stressful life events, such as moving away to university or dealing with academic failure. Increased self-compassion has also been associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, and body dissatisfaction. In general, there appears to be a consistent association between practicing self-compassion and positive mental well-being.

These findings suggest that building self-compassion skills in therapy may be important for those struggling with their mental health. This notion has led to the development of Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), which involves the development of self-compassion skills.

A visual representation of self-compassion. Image: Pixabay CC

The Self-Attitudes Lab run by Dr. Allison Kelly at the University of Waterloo has researched the impact of self-compassion interventions on mental health. One study examined how practicing self-compassion can help those with Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Participants were either provided with self-compassion exercises (e.g., thinking of a time they were compassionate to someone else and treating themselves in the same way) or behavioural strategies (e.g., going for a walk instead of binge eating) to cope with the urge to binge eat. After three weeks, those in the self-compassion group had improved self-image and reduced concerns regarding their eating habits whereas the behavioural strategies group did not. These findings show that practicing self-compassion can reduce the stress and negative thoughts associated with BED. Other research shows that CFT can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, indicating that self-compassion is beneficial in treating a wide range of mental illnesses.

Another study led by Ph.D. student Kiruthiha Vimalakanthan focused on how compassion toward others impacts body image. Participants were given strategies to reduce distress when comparing themselves to others. One group was told to practice compassion toward the other person by finding the common humanity in them. Another group was told to find a different comparison to the person that would make them feel superior. The final group was told to distract themselves with something else entirely. Vimalakanthan found that practicing compassion toward others led to increased body satisfaction when compared to the other two groups. She has suggested that being compassionate toward others improves our own self-compassion. Her current research explores this idea more directly.

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Research shows that practicing compassion toward others can improve our own self-image. Photo by Zackary Drucker as part of Broadly’s Gender Spectrum Collection. Credit: The Gender Spectrum Collection. Made available to media outlets via Creative Commons. No derivatives, no commercial use. See guidelines here: broadlygenderphotos.vice.com/guidelines

Research by Jessica Duspaquier, a Ph.D. student co-supervised by Dr. Kelly and Dr. David Moscovitch, has focused on how self-compassion may impact help-seeking behavior. Her work suggests that practicing self-compassion not only reduces distress levels during difficult life events, but that self-compassion also makes it more likely that you’ll reach out to others and ask for the help you need.

While it’s clear that self-compassion can be helpful in improving our well-being, it’s less clear why self-compassion is effective. Since self-compassion and CFT are relatively new interventions, much of the research has been on what it helps rather than why it helps. Some work has suggested that self-compassion may reduce rumination (repetitive sad thoughts about past events) and worry (repetitive anxious thoughts about future events), which can initiate or exacerbate depression and anxiety. In addition, mindfulness interventions have been shown to be associated with changes in brain activity, with decreases in areas responsible for negative emotional responses and increases in areas associated with attention. Given that mindfulness is a component of self-compassion, it’s possible that practicing self-compassion leads to similar changes in our brains, letting us pay more attention to the feelings we’re experiencing while feeling them less intensely.

If you’re interested in practicing self-compassion, the Self-Attitudes Lab has a list of resources that you might find helpful. In the meantime, here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Try to notice when you’re being overly self-critical. It’s easy to let these moments go unnoticed.
  • Start with smaller moments of self-judgment, (e.g., calling yourself dumb when you make a small mistake), and then work your way up to larger moments of self-criticism.
  • If you catch yourself being self-critical, try to take a step back. Ask yourself how you’re being judgmental and try not to push those negative feelings away.

Most important: remember that self-compassion is a skill. Like all skills, it takes time, practice, and patience. Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up!

~30~

Disclaimer: We at Science Borealis are not registered psychologists or trained therapists. While we all may benefit from practicing self-compassion, it is not a cure-all for mental illness. If you are concerned about your mental health, please talk to a professional or someone you trust to get the help you need. Here are some resources to get you started:

  • The Canadian Mental Health Association – Finding Help: “find resources and tips on getting help when you need it most.”
  • Mental Health Canada: “[A] national comprehensive directory of Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Psychoanalysts, Counsellors, and Psychotherapists searchable by professional designation, gender and location.”
  • Crisis Services Canada(CSC) – Suicide Prevention and Support: “Crisis Services Canada (CSC) is a collaboration of distress and crisis centres from across Canada, offering Canada’s first nationally available, regionally delivered suicide prevention service.”
  • The Lifeline Canada Foundation: “Dedicated to Positive Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.”

 

Banner image: Pixabay CC

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