I recently took an online test to measure my level of self-compassion. “Oh, no!” I thought when I saw my score. “I’m below average!”
Immediately I felt the urge to berate myself for the inadequacy — proving, of course, the test’s point.
The test’s creator, psychologist Kristin Neff, pioneered the scientific study of self-compassion two decades ago. The field has exploded since then, with new research on the topic coming out all the time. And it’s not just a hot topic among researchers; it’s also popular with the public.
This year marks 10 years since Neff, together with her colleague Chris Germer, created a course to teach people self-compassion. Well over 100,000 people have gone through the eight-week course, and clinical trials have found very positive effects on mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, as well as physical health. And notably, those effects persist even a year after the course.
Neff began by developing a model of what self-compassion is. She identified three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness means you’re warm toward yourself when you suffer or mess up, rather than judging yourself harshly (as I did above). Common humanity means you remind yourself that everyone suffers or messes up sometimes, rather than succumbing to the feeling that you’re the only one going through such hard things. And mindfulness here means you’re neither under- nor overidentified with your painful thoughts — you acknowledge them as painful, but you also recognize that they’re just thoughts, not your whole being.
If you’re anything like me, you’re already feeling skeptical about all this. Maybe you’re thinking that you need self-criticism to motivate yourself to improve. Maybe you’re worried that self-compassion would breed self-indulgence, leading you to let yourself off the hook too easily.
Well, it turns out the research dispels these misconceptions. Let’s dive into a couple of studies that show why self-compassion is not only an effective intervention for alleviating mental distress — something we desperately need — but also an effective way to become a better person.
Common objections to self-compassion — and how the research dispels them
The most common objection — and one I had myself — is the concern that self-compassion might rob us of the motivation to improve. If I don’t self-criticize when I make mistakes, will I still feel driven to learn from them?
In 2012, psychologists at the University of California Berkeley conducted a great bit of experimental research to see whether self-compassion and motivation were really at odds.
The guinea pigs were Berkeley students, who were instructed to take an extremely challenging academic exam — so challenging, in fact, that everyone did badly. But the students had been divided into three groups, and each group received a different message after the test.
One group was given a message of self-compassion: “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this.” Another group was given a self-esteem boost: “You must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley!” (Note that self-esteem is not the same as self-compassion, since it focuses on validating strengths rather than accepting that we all have weaknesses.) The last group was not told anything; the researchers’ assumption was that the students, being students at a highly competitive university, would judge themselves harshly for failing a test.
Then the researchers gave all the students a chance to study for as long as they wanted for a new test. The self-compassion group studied the longest, displaying the greatest motivation to improve after an initial failure (and also scoring slightly higher!).
This motivation for improvement extends to the interpersonal realm, too. The same researchers found that more self-compassionate people are more likely to want to apologize and make amends to others when they mess up. They’re more able to acknowledge when they’ve made a mistake, because mistakes don’t feel so psychologically damning. That allows them to take more, not less, responsibility for their actions.
“What self-compassion does is actually give you that sense of safety to be able to say, ‘Okay, I blew it. I feel so bad. Well, it’s human. People make mistakes. How can I repair this?’” Neff told me. By contrast, “If you feel shame, it shuts down your ability to learn from your mistakes.”
A quick refresher here: Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” Now, what’s really interesting is that while self-compassionate people are less likely to feel shame, they’re more likely to feel guilt.
In 2016, researchers showed this experimentally by asking students to make a choice: Either do an annoying task yourself or palm it off on someone else. Those who chose to palm it off were then divided into two groups: One did a written self-compassion practice, while a control group just wrote about a random hobby.
When the students were then asked to rate how acceptable it was to palm off the annoying task, those in the control group saw their selfish act as more acceptable, while those in the self-compassion group saw it as less acceptable.
“Our findings demonstrate that higher self-compassionate people endorse harsher moral judgment of themselves and accept their own moral violations less,” the authors wrote.
How scalable is this?
The self-compassion course, which is run out of Neff’s nonprofit, the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, has come a long way since it was launched 10 years ago. With four randomized controlled trials now backing it up, it’s clear that it has positive effects. But who is really benefiting from it?
The good news is that in recent years, researchers have figured out how to tailor it to specific populations like teenagers, health care workers, and educators.
The not-so-good news: “If you go to a self-compassion workshop,” Neff told me, “it’s still mainly middle-aged white women with graduate degrees.”
If self-compassion is a powerful tool for achieving greater mental health, it shouldn’t be accessible only to well-off people in well-off nations. So the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion has run pro bono teacher training courses in places like Vietnam and Cambodia. This year, a new program will train local people in Kenya to lead the course.
Since people in developing countries may not have the time or money to do a whole eight-week course, researchers will need to figure out how to present the contents in a way that’s more efficient but still effective. Neff says using the popular and cheap workbook she co-wrote might be a good starting point.
The course’s contents may also need to be adapted in different cultural contexts. The ideas people have inherited about self-criticism vary depending on whether they’ve grown up with, say, Confucianism or evangelical Christianity. And bear in mind that many cultures have their own rich models of self-compassion. Figuring out the best way to apply self-compassion teachings transculturally is very much an open research question.
If the first 10 years of the course were about proving its benefits, the next 10 years will be about expanding their reach.
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