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5 Researched Ways Self-Compassion Training Is Transformative

Psychology of how a short and comprehensive training changes students' lives.

By Grant H. Brenner

"Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty." —Albert Einstein

OK, Boomer

Rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise, the future of the planet (or at least our species) is uncertain, and Millennials and Gen Zers increasingly get a bad rap in the workplace. The classic formula of blaming the victim doesn’t help us understand what is happening with our young people and how they can best cope with the current world circumstances.

Making Mindful Self-Compassion Accessible

A group of seasoned clinician-researchers in Norway, including Per-Einar Binder and esteemed colleagues, has been studying how age-old wisdom, delivered in modern, digestible bites, can help college students adapt more effectively to the fluid, frightening, and uncertain environment which characterizes the world of 2020.

Their team developed a series of three 90-minute workshops based on Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), with manageable personal practices to transform one’s relationship with oneself and result in measurable improvements in both self-image and functional outcomes.

Self-compassion and loving-kindness practices, related approaches from Hindu, Buddhist and other traditions have been shown to have great benefits and even rewire the brain and reset the body’s autonomic nervous system to a state of greater balance and poise.

Dr. Binder describes an overview of the three sessions they developed via email interview:

"The first session introduced participants to mindfulness and self-compassion using 15-minute lectures, short mindfulness and self-compassion exercises (affectionate breathing, loving-kindness for ourselves, and self-compassion break), group discussions, and experiential practices—e.g. participants were asked to reflect on and then write down what they would say to themselves to improve something they disliked about themselves. Then they were asked to reflect upon and write down what they would say to a friend under similar circumstances. Participants were then encouraged to discuss the differences between how they tended to treat themselves versus others and the influence this had on themselves.

The second session dealt with mindfulness (with a classical mindfulness meditation and a compassion-based meditation), common physical stress reactions, shame reactions, dealing with destructive self-criticism, how self-compassionate behavior might influence the body and mind, and activating and soothing affect systems within an evolutionary and attachment framework (Gilbert & Procter).

The third and final session comprised an experiential practice and discussions and on positive feelings, reflections on how one wants to live, further discussions about compassion for oneself and others, and the meditations that we introduced in the second session.

Participants were provided with audio guides to mindfulness and self-compassion exercises for daily use between sessions, as well as copies of the PowerPoint presentations given in each session.

Between the first and second sessions, participants were encouraged to use the 15-minute audio guides to practice 'affectionate breathing' and ‘loving-kindness for ourselves’ on a daily basis, adapted from the MSC program.

Between the second and third sessions, participants were expected to use the audio guides to practice two new 15-minute exercises: ‘mindfulness of breathing, body, and emotions’, adapted from the MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] program, and ‘giving and receiving compassion’, adapted from the MSC program."

Their work has spanned many years. In an earlier study (Dundas et al, 2017), students completed the workshops above and researchers measured the objective impact. They found measurable and significant changes in self-efficacy, personal growth, improved impulse control, reduced self-critical thinking, and less negative self-directed thoughts. They found increased self-compassion and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, changes that were sustained at 6-month follow-up.

How did the research findings compare with students’ subjective reports? To look at this question, the research team recruited a final group of almost 100 students who completed the three-part mindful self-compassion intervention. All of the participants completed a questionnaire designed to rate how useful the workshops were for them personally. They were also asked what was the most important thing they got out of the course.

Twelve of the study participants were contacted at random for a detailed, live interview. They were asked a general question about what was most important, followed by more targeted questions to explore specific aspects, such as changes in how participants treated themselves with specific examples, whether they approached academics differently as a result of the course, and about how self-compassion work may have affected relationships. The narrative responses were carefully refined using qualitative research techniques to distill out the strongest themes, which clustered into 5 categories:

1. "I am more supportive and friendlier toward myself when things are difficult or feel painful."

Students reported gradually doing better as they persisted. Small steps build up to big differences if we let them. Students accepted temporary setbacks and were thereby able to move past failure with self-compassion and support from others. Putting their problems in perspective made it easier to move forward, even for big problems.

Self-compassion allows people who reject help to recognize the need for help, overcome barriers to asking for help, develop help-seeking skills, and use them. Students reported, however, that it was easier said than done. On one hand, the concepts from mindful self-compassion were straightforward to grasp, but putting them into practice was at first effortful.

2. "I am more aware that I am too hard on myself or treat myself poorly."

Students were stunned when they realized how rough they were being with themselves, leading for many to immediate changes. Many noted that imagining how they would treat a friend, versus how they dealt with themselves, made a big difference for buffering harshness.

At first, awareness is hard to handle, which can lead to swings that ultimately leveled out into greater self-mastery and optimism. Identifying the inner critic and setting it up as an external concept made it easier to recalibrate self-relationship to become gentler and more self-accepting.

3. "I feel less alone in the world when I have painful feelings and difficulties."

Suffering is a “natural part of the human condition”, mindful self-compassion teaches. While difficult and undesirable, suffering is normal and shared. Students reported great relief, freedom from the sense of isolation, aloneness, and the idea of being uniquely burdened—even while recognizing that people suffer differently and for many different reasons.

Recognizing the commonality of suffering allowed participants to self-soothe more effectively, feeling safer and less ashamed. A sense of group belonging increased and students felt calmer.

The “self-compassion pause” was described as particularly useful. Students were taught to say to themselves: “What do I need when I feel pain like this?” This question becomes second-nature.

Some students were on the fence about talking openly about suffering around other people, as it made them anxious and distressed. People with strong fears of compassion often have personal trauma and may need individualized care.

4. "I am more accepting of painful or uncomfortable feelings and more easily allow the feelings to be there."

Rather than spiral downward, participants learned to accept how they were feeling even when feelings were strongly negative or disorienting.

They noted an increased capacity for self-help. Each time they were able to choose a better path increased their sense of self-efficacy, faith in their ability to provision themselves, and a greater sense of safety and security.

They reported becoming more competent to deal with difficult feelings. Being friendly and gentle toward oneself allowed students to “decouple” from maladaptive thought habits and sub them with more effective, self-compassionate approaches. This, in turn, increased their sense of autonomy and agency, leading to greater empowerment.

5. "I feel more stable and peaceful and have learned new ways to cope with stress."

Students reported that stress management organically improved with practice of loving-kindness and self-compassion. They emphasized the crucial role of being friendly toward oneself as an overarching construct, one to come back to gently and consistently.

In addition to emotional benefits, students reported more positive body attitudes and self-care in areas like eating, sleep, and exercise. They said the recommended meditation practice kept them grounded. Emotional stabilization resulted in greater inner peace. Listening to the body by paying attention to heart and breath was also a game-changer.

Needed Wisdom

This research is remarkable because it gives a glimpse into the hearts and minds of contemporary college students. Showing that complex ideas and practices can be broken down into a user-friendly package that works in this group is an important proof of concept. Interventions similar to this one can be adapted for other groups and translated into digital tools to complement in-person and personal work.

It seems obvious that a broader adoption of compassion—for oneself and others—has the power to transform not just individual lives but the whole of the human condition. Making these practices accessible to more groups by translating them into relatable and practical formats has the potential to contribute to the greater good. The process is slow, slower on a collective level than for individuals, but has a great positive impact in the longer-term.

Dr. Binder generously shared his observations from working closely with self-compassion for many years:

"I think that the most important thing that I have learned from my work with self-compassion is how powerful it is to become aware of how one is treating oneself... And then to become curious about oneself, and start to experiment with different ways of treating oneself. The group format is ideal for this. It is a type of exploration that is very useful to do together with others that are also facing some of the same challenges.

For me, originally trained within long-term psychotherapy, it is surprising to see the deep impact that also a short-term intervention can have. It seems to have a health promoting function in itself for many participants. It may also be an intervention that can augment the effect of psychotherapy.

Another counterintuitive thing: One thing that I did not expect, was that the participants would find our brief lectures so useful. We had some brief (5-10 minutes) lectures about compassion/self-compassion, shame, the inner critic, etc.

I think some of the greatest challenges for people seeking to cultivate self-compassion is un-learning non-productive ways of treating oneself. The habits of threatening or shaming oneself is hard to change. The destructive inner critic often goes under our radar. When we become aware, it also is often painful when we realize how much harm we have caused ourselves through destructive self-criticism.

Another great challenge for many, is what Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff describe as “backdraft”. When we start treating ourselves in a more accepting and compassionate way, fresh air come often come into rooms and spaces of sorrow, frustration or other painful emotions that we have kept locked for many years."

Emotional flames can often roar.

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