Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Self-compassion and well-being
What is self-compassion
and how can it influence our emotional well-being?
Self-compassion is the concept of people being kind to themselves when going through a difficult time. It is similar to compassion but is focused within the individual. Self-compassion is comprised of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. This chapter will answer three main questions about self compassion:
- What is self-compassion?
- How does it affect our well-being?
- How can we become more self-compassionate?
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion has its roots in Buddhism, and it is only in recent times that Western psychologists have begun to conceptualise and study it as a tool for well-being (Barnard & Curry, 2011). Reyes (2012) describes the Buddhist approach to self-compassion:
"From a Buddhist perspective, self-compassion is a response to personal suffering with wisdom, loving-kindness, and mindfulness that extends beyond the self to all others who are suffering." (p. 81)
Although psychologists have produced a large body of empirical evidence on compassion as a concept and tool for well-being, they had not yet looked into self-compassion, which is indistinguishable to compassion in the Tibetan language (Barnard & Curry, 2011). While Dr Kristin Neff derived her definition of self-compassion from the Buddhist psychology, she "conceptualized [self-compassion] in secular terms within the scientific literature" (Neff, 2011 p. 4). Self-compassion only became a notable topic in Western psychology after Dr Kristin Neff published her first two articles in 2003, which conceptualised self-compassion and provided an inventory to measure self-reported self-compassion (Allen & Leary, 2010).
Three elements of self-compassion
There are three main components to achieving self-compassion. All three are focused on intrinsic motivation and do not require external variables to be achieved, or to be effective. Although self-compassion is an intrapersonal process, it has been shown to mirror the interpersonal process of compassion (Breines & Chen, 2013).
Self-kindness involves being kind to yourself when you are suffering or have experienced a failure. It is described as a warm and understanding approach to your imperfection as a human being, as being imperfect means that failure is inevitable. Dr Kristin Neff suggests that people hoping to practice self-kindness should think of it as being gentle with themselves rather than angry (Neff, 2009). Self-compassionate people tend to look inward when circumstances are different for them, finding comfort by being kind to themselves instead of being stoic or ignoring the negative circumstances (Neff, 2011). The opposite of self-kindness is self-judgement, where a person judges themselves harshly during a stressful time when they could be gentle with themselves. When self-judgement is used instead of self-kindness, this results in increased stress, frustration, and self-criticism. Self-judgement and self-kindness have been found to be predictive of depressive symptoms, physical well-being, and managing life stressors (Hall et al., 2013).
Common humanity relies on the concept that suffering within the human race, as well as failures, are part of being human and that everyone experiences them. Common humanity requires the person to recognise this and to include themselves within humanity, not as a solitary individual. It also involves understanding that we cannot control external factors (such as other people's behaviour) but that these failings and life difficulties do not have to be taken personally. They are experiences that are shared throughout humanity. It is also possible that remembering people who might have circumstances worse than yourself puts your experiences into perspective, giving a person a better position to address these feelings (Neff, 2011). The opposite of common humanity is isolation. This is the state where a person tends to forget that suffering is felt by all humanity, and often become lost in their own suffering. This sense of disconnection can cause a 'why me?' mentality (Neff, 2011). Isolation and common humanity have been found to be predictive of depressive symptoms and physical well-being (Hall et al., 2013).
Mindfulness is the practice of taking a balanced approach to emotions. This does not mean closing off negative emotions and trying to only experience the positive ones. It requires the person to be aware of their negative emotions but to not be swept away or overwhelmed by them. Mindfulness is both a process and an outcome (Bluth & Blanton, 2013). Mindfulness is a trait that can be developed, involving openness and awareness, which is the state of mind that self-compassion requires. Mindfulness is also the name given to the techniques (such as breath awareness and body awareness) which help to increase a person's mindfulness as a state of mind (Bluth & Blanton, 2013). The opposite of mindfulness is over identification, which is the focus on negative emotions to the point that the person suffers aversive reactions. Over identification and mindfulness have been found to be predictive of managing life stressors (Hall et al., 2013).
What self-compassion is not
Self-compassion has been confused with several other concepts, both because of the use of the "self" and also because of similar constructs.
- Self-Compassion vs Self-Esteem. Self-compassion is most often mistaken for self-esteem as they have some similar positive outcomes when achieved. However, the main difference between these two concepts is that self-esteem relies in self-evaluation, or perceived value of self, while self-compassion does not. Self-esteem seems to an outcome, not a cause, of doing well (Neff, 2011). Self-esteem can rely on the latest success or failure in a person's life, whereas self-compassion works to help a person remain happy whether they have had a success or a failure; it does not rely on external conditions but helps a person deal with them. Self-esteem can also lead to narcissism (Neff & Vonk, 2009) whereas self-compassion does not require that you feel better than others to have well-being and feel good about yourself. Neff (2011) suggests that the problematic nature of self-esteem is the way that people pursue high self-esteem. This can include that need to feel better than the people surrounding them, or the tendency to ignore weaknesses in order to maintain that high self-esteem (Neff, 2011). This can lead to drawbacks when a person's self-esteem does not remain stable. In comparison, self-compassion has been shown to possess many of the benefits of self-esteem, with protection against the common drawbacks of self-esteem (Neff & Vonk, 2009).
- Self-Compassion vs Self-Pity. Self-compassion is not feeling sorry for one's self or wallowing in self-pity. Self-pity involves isolation, the opposite of common humanity. A person becomes so immersed in their own problems that they forget the suffering shared by all humanity. They forget that external variables do not have to be taken personally, and therefore become empathetic with egocentric and damaging feelings.
- Self-Compassion vs Self-Indulgence. Self-compassion is not indulgence. Self-indulgence provides short term happiness that often results in self-flagellation for the indulgence. Self-compassion is focused on fostering techniques for happiness in the long term, and also being kind to ourselves when we experience a failure or a bump in our plans. Self-indulgence often involves self-judgement, which is the opposite of self-kindness.
How does it affect our well-being?
Self-compassion has been shown to improve well-being. By being kinder to ourselves, balanced about our positive and negative emotions, and reminding ourselves of our common humanity, self-compassion allows people to approach the problems in their lives with a protective measure. Self-compassion has been associated with less stress and anxiety (Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2006), overall positive psychological health (Hall et al., 2013; Reyes, 2012), as well as more compassion for others (Neff & Pommier, 2013).
Self-compassion was found to predict all subscales of psychological well-being in a study by Saricaoglu and Arslan (2013). The study also found that self-compassion was a predictor of autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. This is very important when considering that autonomy is one of the most basic psychological needs.
Self-compassion actually works towards all of the three major psychological needs (Reeve, 2009). As well as autonomy, self-compassion also helps people to feel more competent. However it does not rely on success or failure of a particular task, but the ability to retain the feeling of competence whether a success or a failure is reached. Self-compassion motivates people to do better (Breines & Chen, 2012), even if they have experienced a failure or a set-back in relation to their goals (Hope, Koestner, & Milyavskaya, 2013). The other psychological need that self-compassion fulfills is relatedness. It does this by incorporating the trait of common humanity, which involves reminding ourselves of the relatedness between all humanity. This does not necessarily require interaction with others, but helps to moderate that relatedness with others even after a bad experience (e.g., a fight with another person, a bad experience with a customer, etc).
Studies have found that self-compassion acts as a buffer against anxiety. Neff, Kirkpatrick, and Rude (2006) found that when faced with an ego threat (i.e., confronting their weaknesses), self-compassionate participants showed less anxiety than their non-compassionate counterparts. Self-compassion has even been shown to be negatively associated with Social Anxiety Disorder. A study conducted by Werner et al. (2012) found that while less self-compassion did not necessarily imply severe anxiety, it was shown to be associated with greater fear of evaluation (both negative and positive). The study suggested that self-compassion could play an important role in the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder.
The role of self-compassion in moderating the response to an ego-threat is especially important in those with anxiety conditions. Self-compassion is also more reliable compared to self-esteem. Where self-esteem would become unstable or even drop due to an ego-threat, self-compassion works to soothe response to negative outcomes (Johnson & O'Brien, 2013). This has been seen to reduce threat system activation (the person is less panicked or threatened) and to reduce depressive symptoms.
The components of self-compassion (self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness) were found to be negatively associated with loneliness, whereas self-judgement, isolation, and over-identification were positively associated with loneliness (Akin, 2010).
Disordered eating (e.g., fasting, dieting, purging, binging etc) is another prevalent concern, especially amongst women and girls. Body shaming has been identified as a major contributor to this issue as well as unrealistic cultural standards of beauty (Breines, Toole & Chen, 2013). By using self-compassion as a tool of acceptance, Breines et al. (2013) found that participants who were higher in self-compassion reported a lower concern about weight-gain and lower self-punishment motives for how they were eating. Self-kindness would negate body shaming by promoting acceptance of yourself, as well as kindness towards yourself when you failed to meet a body-related goal. Further research needs to be conducted in this area, but these initial studies (Breines et al., 2013) suggest that self-compassion could be a useful tool in the context of disordered eating.
Self-compassion could also be incredibly beneficial for students, especially students who may suffer from an anxiety disorder or depression. Self-compassion has been shown to be strongly associated with well-being in adolescents, as well as adults (Neff & McGehee, 2010). Therefore it could be a useful tool in helping adolescents to manage stress and anxiety.
Kyong (2013) found that self-compassion moderated the relationship between academic burnout and psychological well-being, as well as the relationship between academic burnout and depression. Self-compassion could therefore be used as an important tool to moderate academic burnout and depression symptoms due to academic stress.
A study by Hope, Koestner, and Milyavskaya (2014) over one week of diary entries from university students found that self-compassion was positively associated with positive changes in life satisfaction, identity development, and decreases in negative affectivity. Students who were high in self-compassion were less affected by the consequences of thwarted or interrupted goal process. It was also observed that students with high self-compassion experienced a drop in negative affect when pursuing goals that were tied to autonomous motivation (Hope, Koestner, & Milyavskaya, 2014) suggesting that autonomous goals are more beneficial, in addition to self-compassion itself.
How can we become more self-compassionate?
Test how self-compassionate you are
Dr Kristin Neff's website has a 26 question questionnaire that scores your overall self-compassion. A score of 3.0 on the 1-5 scale indicates an average overall self-compassion, and the higher your score, the higher your self-compassion. There are two scales available, short and long. The short self-compassion scale (SCS) is 12 items long and is not used to score the subscales (ie self-kindness vs self-judgement). The long SCS has 26 items and includes scoring for the subscales. Dr Kristin Neff (2003) has stated that the scale is appropriate for people over 14, as long as the individual has a reading level of at least an 8th grader.
You can test your level of self-compassion on Dr Kristin Neff's website. 
Methods and activities to practice self-compassion
All of these meditations and exercises can be found on Dr Kristen Neff’s website in more detail. 
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Compassionate body scan
- Affectionate breathing
- Soften, soothe, allow
Exercises to increase self-compassion
- Self compassion break - The Self-Compassion Break involves using three phrases to affirm your involvement in the three elements of self-compassion. When you are having a rough time and need a little help to remain self-compassionate, the self-compassion break involves using these phrases:
- "This is a moment of suffering" to reach a mindful state about your problem or your suffering, by bringing yourself back into the moment and letting yourself acknowledge your suffering, but not to get swept away by it.
- "Suffering is part of life" to remind yourself of the suffering experienced by all of humanity. Other people may be suffering just as you are, some worse.
- "May I be kind to myself" to allow yourself this moment of suffering and to not punish yourself for whatever may have led to the suffering. You are human and humans make mistakes.
- Exploring Self-compassion through writing - This exercise involves writing about an issue that makes you feel inadequate of bad about yourself. You then imagine a friend who can see and know all of your flaws, and then try to imagine how this friend would look at you with compassion. You then write a letter to yourself from that friend, focusing on the compassionate way that they would view you.
- The Criticizer, The Criticized, and the Compassionate Observer - This activity involves using three chairs to represent the three roles of the criticizer, the criticized, and the compassionate observer. By sitting in each chair, you take on each of the roles, one at a time, and talk about yourself and your problems from each point of view.
- Changing your critical self-talk - An on-going process and very much long-term, changing your critical self-talk involves learning not to be critical on yourself during hard times, or even just during the day. It can take a long time for some people to “rewrite” the way they speak to themselves.
- Self-compassion journal - To be kept for a week or longer, a self-compassion journal involves writing down problems that you encountered each day and trying to write about them with a self-compassionate view.
Mindfulness self-compassion program
The Mindful Self-Compassion Program (MSC) is a program run by Dr Kristin Neff (and colleagues). It is an 8-week program of 2.5 hours each week and is designed to help participants improve their self-compassion. The MSC is a culmination of various self-compassion activities and techniques such as meditations, but also techniques that can be used to foster self-compassion in everyday life. The eight sessions are detailed as follows:
- Discovering mindful self-compassion - An introduction to the program and to other participants. The three components of self-compassion are taught using the Self-Compassion Break, and participants contemplate the difference between how they threaten themselves or a loved one when something goes wrong in their lives (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Practicing mindfulness - An introduction to mindfulness, both the theory and the practice. Participants are taught how to reach a mindful state and are given "here and now stones" which are used to bring the attention of a person back to the here and now, therefore making their state of mind more mindful (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Practicing loving-kindness meditation - Participants learn the loving-kindness meditation and are encouraged to practice this meditation in a formal meditation or throughout the day (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Finding your compassionate voice - Participants learn how to tell the difference between their compassionate self and their inner critic. This session builds on the loving-kindness phrases and develops more self-compassionate language to be used every day (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Living deeply - A session on exploring the core values of participants' lives and how they bring meaning to participants' lives. The role of self-compassion is also explored, in the context of helping participants to recover when their lives may not match up perfectly with their core values (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Managing difficult emotions - This session focuses on how to deal with strong and negative emotions that are likely to overwhelm participants. The main activity taught during this session is "soften, allow, soothe" which focuses on body awareness (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Transforming relationships - This session focuses on teaching exercises to dealing with the pain suffered in the context of relationships. Participants are taught compassionate languages to be used in order to let go of old problems and foster forgiveness, for themselves and for others (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
- Embracing your life - The last of eight sessions is, very simply, focused on reaching the maximum level of happiness available to us. Particpants are taught to savour the good things in life and to not focus on the negative things (Neff & Germer, 2013a).
|Neff and Germer (2013a) detail a case study of a participant who was involved in the MSC program. A 52 year old man who was divorced with no children, had suffered from depression and anxiety, worthlessness, hopelessness, fatigue, insomnia, restlessness and other symptoms, was referred to the program because of these chronic symptoms (Neff & Germer, 2013a). The participant was plagued with feeling of worthlessness and did not believe that he deserved to feel better. He was exhibiting signs of extreme self-judgement, isolation, and over-identification.
The program was reported by the participant to be a success, and he even went so far as to say that is "tipped the scales" in his life (Neff & Germer, 2013a p.865). He continued to practice the self-compassion exercises that he was taught in the program and found that he had the tools to deal with problems as they developed in his life (Neff & Germer, 2013a). The participant's life satisfaction continued to improve over the year after the program had ended, consistent with previous evidence of this outcome (Neff & Germer, 2013b).
The MSC program was just as successful in Neff and Germer (2013b), a pilot study and randomized trial of the MSC program. Two studies were conducted to evaluate the credibility of the program. The first study found that participants had significant gains in self-compassion, mindfulness and various other well-being outcomes. The second study found that, compared to a control group, the participants that underwent the program experienced larger increases in self-compassion, mindfulness and well-being (Neff & Germer, 2013b).
Self-compassion as a construct has existed, and been practised, for centuries, however it has only recently received attention in Western psychology. Although there have already been many studies that explored the usefulness of self-compassion, it is a relatively new topic and will require further research and then perhaps implementation of resources such as the MSC program, to raise awareness of self-compassion and its positive effect on well-being. It has already been shown to be as effective as self-esteem, with less of the drawbacks (such as tendency to narcissism). Self-compassion could become a very useful tool for increasing the emotional well-being of anyone who wanted to undertake the practice.
- Self-esteem (Book chapter, 2013)
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