Self-compassion has something of an image problem… Instagram photos of bubble baths or frothy coffees are accompanied by bromides encouraging us to #lookafteryourself or #haveameday. Many of us can be deeply skeptical of self-compassion, feel instinctively allergic to it in fact, but if we look at the science behind it, psychological research shows that far from being a navel-gazing indulgence, self-compassion can have significant benefits for our mental and physical health and help us to thrive and flourish.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is not about giving yourself anything you want because you feel bad. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassion focuses on the ability to understand, empathize, acknowledge and forgive ourselves.
How self-compassionate are you?
Dr. Kristen Neff, one of the pioneering researchers in this field has defined self-compassion as three pairs of opposing components:
- Self-kindness versus self-judgment
When something goes wrong in our lives, do we react by being critical of ourselves, berating ourselves for being so stupid, or not having done this or that… Or do we respond with an attitude of kindness and understanding towards ourselves?
- Common humanity versus isolation
When we feel bad, frustrated or disappointed, do we feel that we are alone and isolated with our problems, believing that no one else makes mistakes like these, or not as frequently, or doesn’t have as many bad things happen to them? Or do we recognize the commonality of life’s difficulties and struggles; recognize that imperfection and failure are normal parts of life? Do we remind ourselves that we all make mistakes, we all feel bad sometimes?
- Mindfulness versus over-identification
When we are coping with difficulties, do we over-identify with our emotions, that is, avoid, suppress, or get caught up and swept away by our aversive reactions, thinking for example: Not only did I fail, I am a failure. Not only am I disappointed, my life is disappointing. Or do we respond to difficulties in life with a mindful stance, holding the difficult emotion in broader awareness, allowing us to take a wiser and more objective perspective on ourselves and our lives?
Many of us, no matter how compassionate we can be to friends, partners, children, family closest to us, struggle with putting self-compassion into practice. If this still sounds somewhat fluffy, neurobiological research has shown some persuasive findings…
The Neurobiology of Self-compassion
Self-compassion is more than just a nice idea, it has a basis in the neurobiology of the human animal. Self-compassion taps into the biological mammalian care-giving system. All mammals have a care-giving attachment system that allows for strong emotional bonds and helps us feel content, safe, connected. This care-giving system works on the hormone and neurotransmitter oxytocin. Increased levels of oxytocin strongly increase feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness, and facilitates the ability to feel warmth and compassion for ourselves. Research suggests that self-compassion may be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin.
By contrast, self-criticism activates another biological system – the threat system, which produces a fight-or-flight response in the body. The amygdala starts a cascade of responses that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, cortisol, to prepare our body for a threat. Over time, repeated and long-term activation of this system has a negative impact on our mental and physical health.
Emerging research has begun to examine the impact of self-compassion versus self-criticism on our bodies, using measures of heart rate variability (HRV) which is simply a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. This variation is controlled by the nervous system and is an indicator of the ability to adapt effectively to stress. High HRV is an index of healthy heart function and is suggested as a physiological index of emotion regulation capacity, reflecting an ability to effectively adapt to stress and environmental demands.
One study showed that participants who were higher in self-compassion skills and lower in self-criticism had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher HRV, suggesting that self-compassion has a beneficial physiological effect.
Self-compassion and Mental Health
It is not only neuro-physiological research which has shown promising findings re self-compassion. Meta-analytic psychological research shows that higher levels of self-compassion are correlated with lower levels of mental health problems. The relationship is a strong one with self-compassion explaining one-third to one-half of the variation in how anxious or depressed people are. Self-compassion is a major protective factor for anxiety and depression. Greater self-compassion is also linked with less rumination, stress, perfectionism, and fear of failure.
Studies also suggest higher levels of self-compassion are linked to more positive mood states, including greater levels of happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, body appreciation, perceived competence, and motivation. Self-compassion can facilitate motivation when we allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them; then we can afford to take risks. As Summer Redstone, American businessman said:
‘Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.’
It is difficult to build on failure and frustration if we go into self-critical mode and self-flagellate.
“Can I Learn Self-compassion?”
Research suggests that self-compassion is not just a pre-existing personality trait, it’s not something you either have or you don’t. Sure, some people are better at responding to difficulty without getting sucked into self-criticism, but it is never too late to develop self-compassion. It is a quality and a skillset that can be learned. Skills around self-compassion are increasingly being incorporated into psychological therapies for depression, trauma, and a host of other problems. Training in developing a compassionate mind is increasingly becoming an important tool in Clinical Psychologists’ arsenal.
Self-compassion is not about champagne and bubble baths. It is about developing a relationship with oneself that is friendly and supportive, which stimulates the positive emotion systems in our brain. Far from being a quick self-indulgence, it is a way of relating to ourselves that has widespread benefits for emotional, mental and physiological functioning.