Emanuel Maidenberg Ph.D.

Belief and the Brain

A Gift to Yourself on Valentine’s Day

The positive impacts of treating yourself with kindness.

Posted Feb 14, 2020

Written by Michelle Dexter, Ph.D. 

Although chocolate may be the most popular gift on Valentine’s Day, there are other ways of being sweet to ourselves. Offering oneself kindness and self-compassion in the face of distress has several physiological and psychological benefits. Read below to learn the evidence behind this caring gesture and how to do it.

What Self-Compassion is not

Most individuals experience stress, pain, or uncomfortable emotions on a regular basis. What they may not know is that people have a choice of how to respond to this discomfort.

A common response to distress is to avoid situations that lead to emotional discomfort. This may seem like you are protecting yourself at first by avoiding something that is painful. Indeed, avoidance does decrease the intensity of an unwanted experience in the short-term. However, in the long-term, both suffering continues and can even increase (Bardeen, 2015; Barlow, Allen, & Choate, 2004; Campbell-Sills et al., 2006; Hayes et al., 2004; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012). Struggling to prevent or avoid an unwanted experience is the opposite of self-compassion.

What does the Research Say?

Self-compassion can be defined as being kind to yourself when you experience pain or suffering (Neff, 2011). Research shows that interventions related to self-compassion yield improvements in the areas of stress, rumination, anxiety, depression, and self-criticism (Ferrari et al., 2019; Yadavaia, Hayes, & Vilardaga, 2014). Additional studies indicate that the more you deliberately respond to your pain or suffering in this way, the more responding in this way can become a habit.

A More Effective Response to Challenging Emotions

Since pain and distress will occur for everyone at some point, amore effective choice is to actually experience the emotion as it comes and goes. In addition, it can be comforting to offer kindness to yourself as you ride the wave of the emotion.

Here is what you can do:

  1. Identify and label the emotion and sensations.
  2. Be aware if you are using a negative filter or judgments about the experience of the emotion. If so, try to use nonjudgmental language to experience the situation as it is. For example, one may observe “I am noticing sensations of heat in my chest and abdomen. This is fear.”
  3. Remind yourself that it is normal to have a range of emotions. 
  4. Offer yourself a soothing touch, kind phrase, or word of encouragement. This may include placing a hand on your heart, gently stroking your face or cheek, or phrases like “may I be kind to myself in this moment” or “may I accept this moment as it is.” 

If you become overwhelmed when experiencing emotions or this is a challenge for you to do independently, be gentle with yourself. You can focus on other acts of self-kindness including focusing on the breath, five senses, or even just having a conversation with a friend. Seeking support from a mental health professional can also be a kind gesture to support you in increasing your ability to experience a full range of emotions in healthy, sustainable, and kind ways.

References

Bardeen, J. R. (2015). Short-term pain for long-term gain: the role of experiential avoidance in the relation between anxiety sensitivity and emotional distress. J. Anxiety Disord. 30, 113–119. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2014.12.013

Barlow, D. H., Allen, L. B., and Choate, M. L. (2004). Toward a unified treatment for emotional disorders. Behav. Ther. 35, 205–230. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80036-4

Campbell-Sills, L., Barlow, D. H., Brown, T. A., and Hofmann, S. G. (2006). Effects of suppression and acceptance on emotional responses of individuals with anxiety and mood disorders. Behav. Res. Ther. 44, 1251–1263. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.10.001

Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A., Abbott, M. J., Beath, A. P., & Einstein, D. A. (2019). Self-compassion interventions and psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysisof RCTs.Mindfulness, 1-19.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., Wilson, K. G., Bissett, R. T., Pistorello, J., Toarmino, D., et al. (2004). Measuring experiential avoidance: a preliminary test of a working model. Psychol. Rec. 54, 553–578. doi: 10.1007/BF03395492

Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., and Wilson, K. G. (2012). Contextual behavioral science: creating a science more adequate to the challenge of the human condition. J. Contex. Behav. Sci. 1, 1–16. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2012.09.004

Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.

Yadavaia, J. E., Hayes, S. C., & Vilardaga, R. (2014). Using acceptance and commitment therapy to increase self-compassion: A randomized controlled trial.Journal ofcontextual behavioral science,3(4), 248-257.