Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Self-Compassion and Health

People who treat themselves with kindness also treat their bodies with kindness.

A few times in this blog, I have written about self-compassion.  Self-compassion is the degree to which you treat yourself with kindness.  It differs from related concepts like self-esteem, which is how good you feel about yourself.  Self-compassion determines how well you come back from adversity.  If you get down on yourself when things go wrong, then it is hard to bounce back from a problem.  If you treat yourself with kindness, then it is easier to recover from a bad experience.

An interesting paper in the July, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Meredith Terry, Mark Leary, Sneha Mehta, and Kelly Henderson examined the relationship between self-compassion and health behaviors. 

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A key question in health-care is what factors lead people to seek help for medical problems.  Every year, some number of people avoid going to the doctor, even when they think they might be sick.  This avoidance can be dangerous if the delay leads a treatable condition to get worse.

In a series of studies, the authors examined the relationship between a measure of self-compassion and a variety of health-related behaviors.  To measure self-compassion, the authors used a scale that described a series of bad things that could happen in someone’s life like making a stupid mistake or having a hard time doing something that other people find easy.  They asked people to evaluate whether they would be likely to do self-compassionate things like cheering themselves up or uncompassionate things like judging themselves harshly.

One study found that people with health problems who have a high level of self-compassion are less depressed about those problems than people with a low level of self-compassion.  Another study found that people with a high-level of self-compassion said they would see a doctor more quickly for health problems than people with a low-level of self-compassion.  The authors found this relationship even after controlling for factors like how good people are at planning for the future.

A final study looked at why self-compassion influences health-related behaviors.  This study found that people with a high level of self-compassion also treat themselves kindly.  That is, they do not get down on themselves for having an illness.  They also frequently remind themselves that many people have health problems and that they do not deserve to be sick.  The combination of self-kindness and positive self-talk help to explain the influence of self-compassion on health behaviors.

This study adds to a growing body of work demonstrating the powerful effects of self-compassion.  Everyone is going to experience negative events in their lives. People try a new venture and fail.  They get sick or injured.  They get in relationships that ultimately break up.  They have loved-ones who get sick or die.  Nobody can escape the bad things that happen in life.

The key is to find ways to deal with those negative events in a positive way.  It is fine to experience the pain of a negative event.  But, after acknowledging the pain, it is also important to get up and try again—to remember that failures and illnesses and bad relationships are not a verdict on your worth as a person, but just another hurdle to be overcome.  Ultimately, you need to learn to treat yourself with the same kindness you would show to others in the same situation.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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