When we think of compassion it is often assumed to be towards others. And rightly so. We are naturally more aware of our own suffering than the trials and tribulations of others because we feel our own experiences directly and not, so to speak, second hand. Therefore, it is compassion toward others that is our general challenge in life both for their well-being and for our ability to create, maintain and deepen our experiences with the people around us. However, as humans we are uniquely endowed with the ability to self-reflect, and in so doing, are capable of being the subject of our own experience. We regularly think about how we treat others, whether we are kind or mean-spirited towards them, and whether we have treated them harshly or with tenderness and care. We are less likely to direct this inquiry inward perhaps because we forget that we have a hand in how we are treated not just by others, but by ourselves.
Research into this area, that is, into “self-compassion”, has been growing in recent years. Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin has been one of the lead researchers in this field over the past decade. She defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is a part of the common human experience”. Her research has shown that high levels of self-compassion act as a buffer for stress the same way having a kind friend or family member consoling you would. In effect, self-compassion is thought to be a self-protective factor that promotes resilience in the face of life’s difficult or painful experiences.
Why is this line of research seen as important? In a series of studies conducted by researchers from Duke University, Louisiana State University and Wake Forest University, Dr. Mark Leary and his colleagues found that self-compassion affects peoples’ experience in significant and surprising ways.
In one study, they validated the idea of self-compassion by showing that participants that score high on a measure of self-compassion reported trying to be kind to themselves more often than those low in self-compassion. The researchers noted this is significant given that previous research carried out by Dr. Neff has shown that higher self-compassion was related to lower levels of anxiety and depression.
In another in their series of studies, the researchers had participants videotaped for three minutes while they talked about themselves. They were then provided with either positive or neutral feedback from people who had observed their video. Interestingly, participants with high self-compassion reacted more similarly to positive and neutral feedback, whereas those low in self-compassion were more likely to evaluate themselves higher when given positive feedback and lower when given neutral feedback. These results suggest that people with high self-compassion tend to take both positive and negative feedback (neutral feedback was seen as relatively more negative by both groups) in stride.
Another experiment using videotape had participants make up a children’s story while being viewed by third party observers. Participants also viewed their own performance and as expected those with low levels of self-compassion were more likely to diminish their performance on video as compared to people with higher levels of self-compassion. Interestingly, the neutral third party observers showed no preference for the performance of either group. That is, even though people with low self-compassion thought they did more poorly, objectively speaking, this was not so! Being kind to yourself is not about self-deceit or having to exaggerate your true worth or competencies.
Self-compassionate people are more likely to see their role in negative life events and absorb the ramifications without seeing themselves as “bad or worthless”. It is about seeing yourself as others see you, with all your strengths and flaws, and accepting yourself for who you are.
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