“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found.” –Buddha
Post by Olivia Thompson, Psychology undergraduate student
The concept of self-compassion emerged primarily from Buddhist psychology and grew out of the more well-known work on mindfulness. Self-compassion entails having kindness and understanding toward ourselves and has numerous mental health benefits, emerging as a valuable construct in the positive psychology realm.
What is self-compassion the way it’s studied by psychologists? To understand self-compassion, one must first understand compassion. Compassion is the desire to ease suffering in another person or another living thing. Compassion does not keep its distance from suffering (like pity does), but approaches it, does not fear or resist it, and desires to alleviate it. The mandate we have to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8) is a commandment to have compassion in this way. However, sometimes we are not quick to include ourselves in the reach of our compassion. With self-compassion, we give ourselves the loving kindness we might more instinctively give to a good friend. Self-compassion means to bear witness to our own pain and to respond with kindness and nonjudgmental understanding.
Researchers argue that self-compassion is actually one of the most natural things in the world because wanting to be free from suffering is something we strive for consistently. However, we also have the tendency to resist painful experiences and emotions as the fight-or-flight response is applied to emotional dangers. A commonly cited equation among self-compassion enthusiasts is that pain x resistance = suffering. Self-compassion is about turning toward our emotional pain and being open to it.
Self-compassion can also be understood in terms of its components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. In 2003, Kristen Neff developed the most widely-used measure of self-compassion, the Self-Compassion Scale, which uses as its six subscales these components and their negative counterparts:
- Self-kindness, the opposite of which is self-criticism, includes not judging or blaming ourselves when things go wrong, as well as being understanding toward personal shortcomings.
- Common humanity, the opposite of which is isolation, entails viewing our difficulties as part of the human experience and our suffering as something all people experience.
- Mindfulness, the opposite of which is over-identification with our thoughts, means holding emotions in perspective, or taking a balanced view of a situation.
There are also a few things that self-compassion is not.
- First, self-compassion is not selfish. It doesn’t close us off from others but brings us closer to the rest of humanity. It is also not selfish because demeaning our suffering by comparing it to others’ can mean avoiding our own pain, which decreases our ability to care for others.
- Second, self-compassion is not self-esteem. Self-esteem is contingent; it is based on self-evaluation and has comparison at its root, while self-compassion is not dependent on any quality in us or in others.
- Lastly, self-compassion is not passiveness. The number one reason that people are self-critical is that they think they need it to motivate themselves, that too much self-kindness will lead to laziness. However, research has shown that the opposite is true.
Research on the topic of self-compassion has increased dramatically in recent years. Some topics currently being researched in relation to self-compassion are body image and eating disorders, caregiving and burnout, and health and athletics. Self-compassion has also been found to be successful in alleviating depression, with negative cognitive style, including rumination, shame, avoidance, self-criticism, and irrational beliefs, being the mediator in this relationship. Worry has also been found to at least partially mediate the relationship between self-compassion and anxiety.
Dr. Jared Warren, associate professor in the department of psychology at BYU, began teaching a class on positive psychology in the fall of 2014 and has recently put together a research team to study self-compassion and other positive psychology topics including growth habits, interconnectedness, flow experiences, and mindfulness. He and his research team are excited to include BYU in the circle of researchers exploring cutting-edge positive psychology topics.
To apply self-compassion in your own life, try to:
- Notice the great compassion that others have for you, including parents, mentors, or deity figures. Learn how to treat yourself from the way that person treats you. Or, notice the compassion you easily have for a close friend or loved one. Harness and observe that feeling, and then replace that close friend with yourself.
- Practice informal mindfulness in everyday life. Be a nonjudgmental observer of the present moment. Try to refrain from making quick value judgements. Periodically take a few conscious, deep breaths.
- Learn to label your emotions – this helps them be seen as just emotions; it gives enough distance to not be drowning in the feeling.
- Repeat self-compassion phrases to yourself throughout the day such as “May I be happy,” “May I live with ease,” “May I love myself just as I am,” or “May I be free from suffering.” Feel the warmth of loving intention.
- Simply take a moment and be kind to yourself, however that looks for you! There’s no wrong way to be self-compassionate. You might say things like “Self, I’m so sorry you’re hurting. Sometimes it’s difficult to be a person, isn’t it? You’re dealing with some really hard stuff, and I validate that. But I also know your great capacity to overcome!”
If you have interests in formally developing self-compassion, you may want to look in to loving-kindness (or metta) meditation. Guided loving-kindness meditations can be found online, including at www.self-compassion.org.