If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion—Dalai Lama
The 2,500-year-old Buddhist tradition contains some fundamental truths about human nature that Western science is slowly beginning to embrace. One is that humans, like all members of the animal kingdom, are inherently social beings. Our brains are wired for love, connection, and cooperation. But the individualism, social isolation, and competition of modern society have led to imbalance within ourselves, in our relationships, and with nature. We see the results in current epidemics of anxiety, loneliness, pain, and obesity. Yet if we lack connection in the external world, we still have the ability to create it in our internal worlds through compassionate practices, and thereby reap some physical and psychological benefits.
What is Self-Compassion?
Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, is the pioneer of self-compassion as a tool to promote psychological healing, well-being, and better relationships. She contrasts self-compassion with self-esteem in that it does not require us to elevate ourselves above other people and compete with them. While high self-esteem is generally based on evidence of superior achievement, self-compassion is a more constant personal quality, in which we value ourselves and treat ourselves kindly just because we are human. And this caring attitude to ourselves helps us to recognize our similarity and connection with other humans, who share with us common aspirations and sources of suffering.
Does Self-Compassion Turn Us Into Wimps?
Self-compassion does not make us spoiled or weak, but rather is a learned coping strategy that research shows can decrease anxiety and enhance resilience and recovery from the effects of stress. It also does not require us to deny and suppress negative aspects of our experience. In fact, part of Neff's definition of self-compassion is mindfulness—or a balanced holding in consciousness of all facets of our experience, without overreacting to them. The essence of self-compassion is to acknowledge our own emotional suffering and then deliberately comfort ourselves by generating feelings of warmth, softness, and care toward ourselves and, by association, all living beings who are suffering.
How Do Children Develop Self-Compassion?
Self-compassion is a skill that can be learned, and improved through learning. Children learn by watching how caretakers, especially parents, react to them. If children get punished for expressing anger or sadness, they learn that it is bad or even dangerous to feel these states. If their sharing about life's disappointments and rejections results in stern criticism and expressions of contempt, they become contemptuous and critical of themselves. Therein lie some of the roots of human misery. The normal social and academic challenges presented by school and peers become compounded by social learning. Children with critical, neglectful, or rejecting parents now learn a layer of negative labels to put on themselves when they are less than perfectly accepted and successful. On the other hand, those lucky ones who have caring, attentive parents learn, via the experience of being warmly comforted and cared for, how to take care of themselves when they are sad or have been let down by life. Research shows that securely attached children are more self-compassionate than children with anxious or disorganized attachment styles. Cultural factors also play a role. If the culture emphasizes fear of punishment as the basis of learning, levels of self-compassion will be lower overall.
What are the Benefits of Self-Compassion?
Research by Neff and colleagues shows that self-compassion decreases anxiety in evaluative situations, such as being asked about one's weaknesses in a job interview. Self-compassion is also associated with higher and more consistent levels of well-being than self-esteem. When self-evaluations are not dependent on constant proof of achievement, we feel more relaxed and better about our lives. Self-compassion is also associated with more curiosity and exploration. When we don't beat ourselves up for failure, we are freer to try new things and make mistakes as part of the normal pattern of learning and growth. More self-compassionate people are also more willing to take responsibility for their contribution to situations that don't turn out as planned. When making a mistake is not the end of the world, we are freer to confront our mistakes, learn new skills, and make amends, rather than hide away in shame.
Can Self-Compassion Make Me Healthier?
A 2007 study by Neff and colleagues suggests that self-compassion may be an important tool in weight-management and in overcoming emotional eating. Students were given donuts to eat, but half were assigned at random to hear a compassionate comment from the experimenter, such as, "Don't beat yourself up about eating these; subjects eat them all the time." The other half received the donuts without the comment. Later that day, when given the chance to eat candy, those who heard the compassionate comment ate less. Therefore, self-compassion may help to prevent emotional eating resulting from feeling bad about breaking dietary restriction rules. Future research is needed to look at whether these benefits are also found in clinical populations such as obese people or those with eating disorders.
In summary, self-compassion appears to have many benefits. When we treat ourselves kindly, we learn to soften and open ourselves to all kinds of experiences, including our own emotions. We may also become more accepting of others when we focus on our common humanity.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and expert on life change, relationships, health integrative and behavioral medicine, chronic stress and pain, who has published research in academic journals. Previously a professor, she is now a practicing psychologist, national speaker, and media consultant.