Science Watch

You screwed up. Maybe you came unprepared to an important meeting, or got into a fender bender while distracted by your cell phone. If something similar had happened to a good friend or family member, you’d probably tell them, “Don’t beat yourself up!” We rarely give ourselves that same advice.

But maybe we should. Recent research in the burgeoning field of “self-compassion” suggests there are good reasons to be kinder to oneself.

“It’s a very old idea, discussed by Buddhists 2,500 years ago, but it hadn’t yet been looked at from a research perspective,” says Kristin Neff, PhD, a professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin, who is among the researchers exploring the area.

Studying Buddhist meditation, Neff had become familiar with the idea of self-compassion — basically, being nice to yourself. As a postdoc, she’d studied self-esteem and found that while it’s associated with many positive mental health outcomes, it’s also linked to negatives such as narcissism. “As I started becoming more familiar with the problems of self-esteem, I thought self-compassion could offer a real alternative,” she says.

She set about defining self-compassion from an academic perspective and developing a scale to measure it. That work led to a pair of papers in Self and Identity (Vol. 2, No. 2–3) in 2003 and her new book, “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” (2011).

According to Neff’s definition, self-compassion entails three main components. The first (and most obvious) is to be understanding rather than self-judgmental. “Most people’s internal dialogue is actually quite harsh,” Neff says. “The self-kindness part requires reframing your dialogue so that you’re kind and supportive.”

The second component involves framing your personal experience in light of a shared human experience. When something goes awry — your car breaks down on the highway, say, or a family member gets a worrisome medical diagnosis — a common emotional reaction is “Why me?” The sense that things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to can lead to feelings of isolation, which is in turn linked to anxiety and depression, says Neff. “The opposite of that reaction is recognizing that the human experience entails imperfection,” she says. “When you’re compassionate toward yourself, you can actually feel connected to other people in your suffering.”

The third element of self-compassion centers on awareness. In the last decade or so, the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has begun to permeate psychology. After a lot of mulling, Neff came to believe that mindfulness is also a necessary piece of self-compassion. “You have to be mindful of your suffering in order to give it compassion,” she says.

On one hand, you must be aware of self-criticism in order to curtail it. But mindfulness also requires that you see things as they truly are, instead of exaggerating a situation or adopting a “woe-is-me” attitude. That’s crucial, Neff says, as it distinguishes healthy self-compassion from unhealthy self-pity.

All sorts of benefits

Since Neff published her self-compassion scale, she and other researchers have linked the trait to a number of positive mental health outcomes, including increased happiness, optimism and social connectedness. People who score high on self-compassion also tend to suffer less from anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure, as Neff summarized in Human Development in 2009 (Vol. 52, No. 4).

In fact, so many positive associations with self-compassion have been documented that the research “is almost getting boring,” says Mark Leary, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and author of the 2007 book “The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life.” “Everybody who studies this finds that high self-compassion is related to higher emotional well-being across the board,” he says. “There’s no question there are all sorts of emotional benefits.”

Leary and his colleagues have recently looked at self-compassion in a variety of groups. One such study focused on the elderly, whose medical problems, including pain, limited mobility and hearing loss, can take a toll on their emotional well-being. In not-yet-published research, Leary found that when elderly people with such problems had high self-compassion, their levels of happiness and emotional well-being were on par with those of elderly people in good physical health. “It’s like self-compassion erases the emotional fallout of some of the problems associated with aging,” he concludes.

In other studies being prepared for publication, Leary and colleagues demonstrated that emotional benefits of self-compassion translate to behavior and physical well-being as well. He found that HIV-positive women with high self-compassion were much more likely than those with low self-compassion to practice safe sex and disclose their HIV status to sexual partners. And in a study of young adults, those with high self-compassion reported that they would be more likely than their self-critical peers to seek medical care for hypothetical problems, such as vomiting blood, twisting an ankle or noticing a suspicious skin lesion. “People low in self-compassion were more likely to say they’d never seek care at all,” he says.

In a 2007 study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (Vol. 26, No. 10), Leary and graduate student Claire Adams asked female college students to eat doughnuts in what they believed was a taste-test experiment. Meanwhile, some of the women were conditioned for self-compassion with statements such as “Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel really bad about it.”

Later, the women were asked to participate in a taste test of various candies. Among restrained eaters such as frequent dieters and guilty eaters, those who were primed for self-compassion went on to eat less candy than those who weren’t given the compassionate prompt. Previous studies by various researchers have shown that restrained eaters tend to overeat unhealthy foods after first being fed an unhealthy “preload.” One explanation is that dieters who already feel guilty about the first treat may engage in emotional eating later on. But Leary’s study suggests that self-compassion may limit the distress that leads to emotional binges in restricted eaters.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, would-be dieters are among the first targets of the self-compassion message. Jean Fain, PhD, a psychotherapist and Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate, recently published “The Self-Compassion Diet” (2010) based on the principles of going easy on yourself.

Overweight individuals aren’t the only ones with something to gain by cranking up the self-kindness. An accumulating body of research suggests that self-compassion offers the same positive benefits of self-esteem without the negatives. In fact, Neff suggests that self-compassion is a healthy way to develop self-esteem, whereas narcissism, or having self-esteem contingent upon external factors, is not. “I’m not bashing self-esteem,” Neff says. “I’m just saying: Let’s get it in healthy ways, not ways that cause you problems.”

Could self-compassion have its own downsides? None have been found so far — and not for lack of trying, Leary says. Initially, he suspected that self-compassion might be linked to self-indulgence. If you’re too nice to yourself, he theorized, you can let yourself off the hook no matter what you’ve done wrong. But his 2007 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 5) found just the opposite. “In fact, people high in self-compassion take more responsibility for the bad things that happen to them,” he found.

“I think one reason we deny responsibility for bad things is it makes us feel bad about ourselves,” he explains. People high in self-compassion, however, can admit their mistakes without self-flagellation.

Roots of compassion

Paul Gilbert, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the University of Derby in England and author of “The Compassionate Mind,” (2009) has used principles of self-compassion in therapy for well over a decade. Initially, he says, he simply helped patients learn to generate a kind inner voice. “We called it inner warmth in those days,” he says. Over time his techniques evolved to a system he calls “Compassionate Mind Training.”

Being compassionate toward oneself, Gilbert says, taps deep into human nature. As social mammals, we’ve evolved “affiliative” behaviors designed to promote social cohesion. Our primate relatives groom one another and care for their young. Fossil evidence indicates that at least a million years ago, early humans cared for others with severe physical deformities. Those social behaviors are rooted in our brain physiology, says Gilbert. “From both psychology and physiology, it’s clearly the case that we’re set up to be compassionate beings,” he says.

Nevertheless, turning that kindness inward doesn’t come easily to most people, Neff says. Surprisingly, she’s found no correlation between self-compassion and compassion for others. There is natural variation in the population, she notes. People who score high on neuroticism tend to be less self-compassionate. And people who grew up in supportive homes with understanding parents are more likely to direct compassion toward themselves. Despite the variation, she says, “most people in our society are not that self-compassionate.”

“I think a lot of people who need it don’t have it naturally,” she adds. “I would say it needs to be taught, especially to people who are self-critical or anxious or depressed.”

She’s now developing a training program to teach people to practice self-compassion. A good place to start, she suggests, is on paper. Maybe you’re upset that you flubbed a presentation. What would your most supportive friend say about the experience? Write down everything this friend might say to you, from her point of view. Later, read the letter back to yourself — and try to take the words to heart. (For more exercises to increase self-compassion, visit Neff’s website.) Pilot data indicate that participation in self-compassion workshops decreases depression and anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connectedness, she says. Going forward, she hopes to fine-tune her training tools and validate their effectiveness.

Richard Davidson, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has studied compassion in long-term practitioners of meditation. He finds the recent work on self-compassion “interesting and potentially very important.” However, he argues, studies of compassion in general — including those on self-compassion — are in need of methodological improvement. “One of the critical issues in all of this work is the importance of getting beyond self-report measures, to actually get more objective behavioral measures of self-compassion,” he says.

Indeed, those who study self-compassion admit the field is young and would like to see the research develop and bloom. Gilbert has been teaching the principles of self-compassion in clinical settings for years. He’s pleased that more people are now investigating the topic and is expanding his own research to investigate the fear of compassion.

Though there’s a lot left to learn, it seems that cultivating self-kindness is well worth the effort. “If you have a kind, encouraging, supporting part to you, you’ll be OK,” Gilbert says. “If you have a bully that kicks you every time you fall over, then you’re going to struggle.”

Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.

For videos of Dr. Kristin Neff discussing self-compassion, self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness, go to YouTube.