“Oh no!” I thought when I did an online test to measure my level of self-compassion and saw my score. “I’m below average!”
Immediately I felt the urge to berate myself for the inadequacy – which, of course, proved the point of the test.
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 subject coming out all the time. It’s not just a hot topic among researchers; it is also popular with the public.
This year marks 10 years since Neff and her colleague Chris Germer created a course to teach people self-compassion. More than 100,000 people have completed the eight-week course, and clinical trials have found very positive effects on mental illness such as depression and anxiety, as well as on physical health. In particular, those effects persist even a year after the course.
Neff started by developing a model of what self-compassion is. She identified three components: kindness to yourself, ordinary humanity and mindfulness
Kindness to yourself means being warm to yourself when you are suffering or screwing up, rather than judging yourself harshly (as I did above). Common humanity means reminding yourself that everyone suffers or messes up sometimes, rather than giving in to the feeling that you are the only one going through such difficult things. Mindfulness here means that you are not under- or over-identified with your painful thoughts – you recognize them as painful, but you also recognize that they are just thoughts, not your whole being.
If you’re anything like me, you’re already skeptical about all this. You may think you need self-criticism to motivate yourself to improve. Perhaps you fear that self-compassion would lead to self-indulgence, which makes you let go of yourself too easily.
Well, it turns out that the research dispels these misconceptions. Let’s take a look at why self-compassion is not only an effective intervention for relieving mental health problems – something we desperately need – but also an effective way to become a better person, and how you can achieve this yourself.
Common objections to self-compassion – and how the research dispels them
The most common objection – one I had myself – is the concern that self-compassion might rob us of the motivation to improve. If I don’t criticize myself when I make mistakes, will I still feel driven to learn from them?
In 2012, psychologists at the University of California Berkeley conducted much of experimental research to see if self-compassion and motivation were really at odds.
The guinea pigs were Berkeley students, who were tasked with taking an extremely challenging academic exam — so challenging, in fact, that everyone did poorly. But the students were divided into three groups, and each group received a different message after the test.
One group received a message of self-compassion: ‘If you had trouble with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It often happens that students have difficulty with these types of tests.” Another group got a self-esteem boost: “You must be intelligent when you step into Berkeley!” (Note that Self-esteem is not the same as self-compassionbecause it focuses on validating strengths rather than accepting that we all have weaknesses.) The last group was told nothing; the researchers assumed that the students, who are students at a highly competitive university, would judge themselves severely if they failed a test.
After that, the researchers gave all students the opportunity to study for as long as they wanted for a new test. The self-compassion group studied the longest and showed the greatest motivation to improve after a first failure (and scored slightly higher too!).
This motivation for improvement also extends to the interpersonal domain. The same researchers found that people with more self-compassion are more likely to apologize and make amends with others when they mess up. They are better able to recognize when they’ve made a mistake because mistakes don’t feel as destructive psychologically. That allows them to take more, not less, responsibility for their actions.
“What self-compassion does is actually give you that sense of security to be able to say, ‘Okay, I screwed up. I feel so bad. Well, it’s human. People make mistakes. How can I fix this?’” Neff told me, by contrast, “When you feel shame, it cuts off your ability to learn from your mistakes.”
A quick refresher here: Shame is “I’m bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” What’s really interesting is that while self-compassionate people are less likely to feel ashamed, they… more likely to feel guilty.
In 2016, researchers showed this experimentally by asking students to make a choice: Do an annoying task yourself or pass it on to someone else. Those who chose to take it off were then divided into two groups: one did a written self-compassion exercise, while a control group simply wrote about a random hobby.
When the students were then asked to rate how acceptable it was to pass off the tedious task, those in the control group found their selfish behavior more acceptable, while those in the self-compassion group found it less acceptable.
“Our findings show that people with higher self-compassion subscribe to stricter moral judgments about themselves and less accepting of their own moral violations,” the authors wrote.
Practicing self-compassion: a crash course
The beauty of self-compassion is that it is a skill that anyone can learn. While it may be more difficult for some people, such as those who have experienced the kind of trauma that produces a harsh inner critic, anyone can practice self-compassion and build it up over time.
Laura Silberstein-Tirch, director of the Center for Compassion Focused Therapy and author of a book on the subject, explained how the process works using the example of a young woman she knows. The woman is a new mother who has recently started placing her child in daycare. The child’s fear of being dropped off caused the mother to feel intensely ashamed and think, “I’m a bad mother!” She began to ponder how she should have done things in life differently, such as pursuing a more lucrative career so that she could afford to place her child in better childcare facilities or keep the child at home.
How can this new mom start with self-compassion?
Step one is for her to become aware of what she is feeling right now – just to be aware that she is in pain. She might say something like, “This is hard. It hurts.” Or, “Wow, there’s a lot of suffering here.”
Step two is to understand that this kind of suffering is part of the human condition. It is part of our common humanity. She might say something like, “It’s not just me. It is difficult for many mothers to place their child in childcare.”
Step three is to offer yourself kindness. A good way to start is to shift the basic physiology. As mammals, we are soothed by physical touch. So the new mom can put her hands on her heart and signal her body that it can come out of a threat state.
She may then ask herself, “What would I say or do for a friend who was in the same situation? I wouldn’t scold her the way I scold myself. I’d probably tell her that she’s trying really hard to be the best mom she can, and the fact that she’s so upset shows how much she cares about her child. Maybe after the daycare drop off I would take her to a nice coffee shop where she can have a hot drink and take a few minutes to calm herself down before getting on with her day. Then the mother can try to say and do that for herself.
“We call it the compassionate U-turn,” Neff’s colleague psychologist Chris Germer told me. When people struggle to offer themselves the full compassion they would offer a friend, Germer says he asks them, “Would you be willing to treat yourself a little like you would treat a friend?”
Silberstein-Tirch told me about another form of troubleshooting she does with clients. If they resist letting go of self-criticism, she asks them, “What function does that serve you? If I could wave a magic wand and make it so that you would never skip this one again, what would your biggest fear be?
Sometimes people realize that their fear is that they might become lazy or let go too easily, in which case it helps to be reminded of the above research. If they stick to self-criticism as a strategy for dealing with these fears, Silberstein-Tirch might ask them, “How does that work for you?”
People generally recognize that their current strategy is generally not helping them. From there, they may be more willing to try something new.
If you’re still feeling skeptical — whether you’re doubting whether self-compassion will make you a better person, or whether it’s something you can take advantage of — that’s okay. Instead of trying to force yourself to accept it intellectually, you can take the attitude of a scientist conducting an experiment.
“Try some self-compassion in a moment of need and just see what happens,” Germer says. He bets that if you try, even in small ways, the results will convince you that it’s a better approach than beating yourself up.
If you’re motivated to learn more, get a copy of the popular and inexpensive workbook Neff and Germer wrote together. You can also sign up for the full eight-week self-compassion course taught by their non-profit organization, the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.
“That course is the mothership, but we need other ramps,” Germer says. “The future of self-compassion training is adjustments.”
To that end, researchers have been busy figuring out how to tailor the course to specific populations such as: teenagers, healthcare workers, educatorsand LGBTQ people; it is now taught on every continent except Antarctica. If the first 10 years of the course were about proving its benefits, the next 10 years will be about increasing its reach.