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Mindfulness

Mindfulness Vs. Self-Compassion: Which Matters More?

3 studies show self-compassion is a more powerful mental health predictor.

Key points

  • Three research studies indicate that self-compassion influences mental health to a greater extent than does mindfulness.
  • Mindfulness and self-compassion are complementary capacities that interact to promote mental health.
  • Reducing self-judgment forms a key mechanism of action through which both mindfulness and compassion-focused practices improve mental health.

Mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, while refraining from judgment) and self-compassion (the quality of being kind and compassionate toward yourself, even in moments of failure or difficulty) are closely related. And both mindfulness and self-compassion are positively linked with better mental health.

iStock/IngaNielsen
iStock/IngaNielsen

Three research studies used different methods and populations to evaluate the extent to which mindfulness and self-compassion contributed to mental health. Each found that self-compassion was more strongly (inversely) associated with mental health difficulties than was mindfulness.

Psychologist Nicholas Van Dam and his colleagues at the University at Albany, SUNY collected data from 504 adults with anxiety. Participants completed standardized questionnaires measuring levels of anxiety, depression, worry, mindfulness, self-compassion, and overall quality of life. Mindfulness scores explained 1-3 percent of the variance in the outcomes, whereas self-compassion scores explained between 10-27 percent of the variance. The researchers concluded that self-compassion may be a stronger predictor of mental health symptoms and quality of life than mindfulness—in fact, up to ten times as strong.

At UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, research scientist Brian Galla investigated the degree to which changes in mindfulness and self-compassion led to lower stress levels. The participants in the study were 127 community adults enrolled in a six-week stress reduction program. They completed measures of stress, mindfulness, and self-compassion before and after the program. Only changes in self-compassion (that is, increasing levels of self-compassion) predicted lower stress levels at the end of the program; changes in mindfulness levels did not.

In another research study, this time with 132 adolescents, Galla evaluated how changes in mindfulness and self-compassion corresponded to well-being. Adolescents completed self-report measures before, immediately after, and three months following a five-day meditation retreat. Changes in levels of self-compassion led to improvements in well-being (e.g., less stress, depression, and rumination) more consistently than did changes in mindfulness. Self-compassion explained a larger amount of variance than did mindfulness scales with respect to each outcome variable.

It might seem silly to contrast the impacts of mindfulness and self-compassion, especially as the evidence indicates that these are complementary capacities that interact to promote mental health. Furthermore, some of the same practices and programs, including traditional meditation retreats, seem to increase both mindfulness and self-compassion. But the question interests me because it delves into the mechanisms of these capacities and their cultivation. Exactly what changes occur during mindfulness meditation or self-compassion practice that are so beneficial?

Reducing self-judgment seems to be a key mechanism of action through which meditation leads to better mental health; in fact, improving self-compassion forms an essential ingredient in the mindfulness-happiness connection. Whether you reduce self-judgment via mindfulness meditation or a more targeted self-compassion practice such as lovingkindness meditation, becoming less self-critical—and more accepting toward your own thoughts and emotions—is a great way to improve your mental health. Other mechanisms through which meditation improves mental health include less rumination and improved emotion regulation.

Practices that build mindfulness and self-compassion don’t usually improve mental health instantly. For instance, during sitting meditation, it’s easy to become frustrated by the many distracting thoughts that arise. However, each distracting thought is an opportunity to return your focus back to the breath with as little judgment as possible, despite an impulse to criticize yourself or the practice itself. Over time (for instance, eight weeks), the mental workouts from these non-judgment “reps” seem to result in less self-judgment, more self-compassion, and better mental health.

Lovingkindness meditation is another practice that people might not enjoy initially, but that is strongly associated with improved mental health over several weeks of practice. The technique involves silently repeating good wishes toward yourself or toward others, such as, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” Some people report that this technique seems silly or uncomfortable at first, but that over time, they find themselves relating to other people and to themselves with less judgment.

In addition to meditation practice, several forms of therapy and experiential programs can improve mindfulness, self-compassion, and mental health simultaneously. These include compassion-focused therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and mindful self-compassion. But the evidence shows that you don’t have to be in a structured program to build mindfulness and self-compassion. People can also try out these types of practices on their own, or use guided mindfulness or self-compassion exercises such as those provided by UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. In my recent book, The Self-Talk Workout, I describe several different ways to build the mental "workout" routine that seems like the best fit for you.

There are, of course, other reasons to practice mindfulness and self-compassion techniques besides boosting mental health. These capacities are also related to better relationships, attention, physical health, academic achievement, and social justice.

As mindfulness and self-compassion initiatives become increasingly popular, it’s helpful to understand why these approaches improve mental health. Harsh self-criticism is a common mental habit, but it’s linked with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

Because mindfulness and self-compassion practices decrease the habit of harsh self-judgment, they can confer meaningful mental health benefits.

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