Is Self-Compassion Required for Human Survival?
New research on the broad relevance of self-compassion as a basic human concept.
Posted June 1, 2020
Compassion is not empathy, though compassion depends upon empathy. Whereas empathy is the ability to take another’s perspective—cognitive and/or emotional—compassion is the motivation to alleviate suffering. Compassion implies action.
A growing body of literature has explored compassion and loving-kindness, including the benefits of practicing compassion for oneself and others, the role of forgiveness, acceptance, and gratitude, and barriers to compassion, including fears of self-compassion, receiving compassion from others, and expressing compassion for others.
Self-compassion is core. It is a key component of personal identity, influenced by heredity and upbringing. Those with depression, anxiety disorders, developmental trauma, and other issues tend to have negative, self-critical attitudes that undermine resilience and hamper personal growth and satisfaction. Cultivating compassion helps.
Lacking self-compassion makes it easier to fall into self-defeating patterns. Research suggests that those higher in self-compassion approach failure as a learning opportunity rather than a threat. Rather than focusing on performance anxiety, self-compassion allows us to focus on what is important... self-efficacy, personal satisfaction, and a balanced perspective on how external opinions matter.
Lower self-compassion is associated with personality, influencing interpersonal relations. A recent study found that agreeableness—one of the Big Five personality traits—was lower in people with decreased self-compassion. The same study found that emotional intelligence was negatively correlated with self-compassion. Self-compassion may improve social function, with increased prosocial attitudes and behaviors, and is associated with closer relationships.
Does the self-compassion scale reflect a universal construct?
As described by István Tóth-Király and Kristin D. Neff in Is Self-Compassion Universal? Support for the Measurement Invariance of the Self-Compassion Scale Across Populations (2020), the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS) has six subscales: self-kindness, common humanity, mindfulness, self-judgment, isolation, and overidentification (with negatives). Being self-compassionate and self-uncompassionate are two sides of the same coin, statistically-speaking.
They analyzed data from 20 different samples collected previously (2019). All told, 10,997 participants from Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Italy, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, United Kingdom, and the United States ranging in age from 15 to 83, 70 percent female, completed the 26-item SCS in multiple languages. The data were tested rigorously1.
The authors found broad validity for the SCS. Regardless of population, gender, age, or language used, the SCS reveals self-compassion. This suggests that the SCS is getting at a foundational aspect of the human experience and that self-compassion is conserved around the globe, though levels of self-compassion vary from person-to-person, group-to-group.
For example, as shown previously, men were, on average, somewhat more self-compassionate. This may seem to challenge stereotypes. On the other hand, women are often seen as more self-sacrificing, arguably supporting lower self-compassion, with a greater impact on child-rearing. Research suggests that this mother-father asymmetry may be the result of mothers being the primary caregiver than innate differences in biology, rather than biologically-determined differences.
Clinical populations had lower self-compassion compared with other groups. Self-compassion, and other forms of compassion, tend to be lower in those with depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. Of unclear significance, students had the highest self-compassion. Are younger people wiser than they used to be, perhaps as a result of compassion-based practices becoming more widely available? Many schools are also adopting emotional intelligence programs for children (e.g., Yale), and educational media increasingly focuses on congruent values, fostering greater awareness of the importance of self-compassion.
The study also found that self-compassion increases with age, presumably as we work to develop better relationships with ourselves, addressing long-standing issues, overcoming negative attitudes, and ultimately developing wisdom along the way.
Spanish, Italian, Hungarian, Brazilian, and Austrian respondents had the highest self-compassion, followed by the UK, France, and Greece, and finally, the USA and Germany. English-speaking cultures had lower self-compassion, an intriguing observation. It is impossible to know how to interpret these findings—future work is needed.
I interviewed study authors István Tóth-Király and Kristin D. Neff via email. They highlighted the importance of self-compassion during COVID-19, noting, “This positive self-attitude might be even more important nowadays during the ongoing global pandemic which poses uncertainty, economic hardship, and personal challenges to all of us… Having a healthy relationship with ourselves might be able to make a difference right now and moving forward. This positive self-attitude is especially imperative for essential workers at the frontlines such as nurses and physicians who need self-compassion to cope with trauma and stress they are experiencing. It can also provide the resources needed to provide help and care for patients.”
I asked them what surprises people most at the beginning of self-compassion. Responding that people are surprised by how helpful it is to be intentionally self-compassionate, they wrote, “Instead of making them weak, self-compassion helps them be strong in the face of adversity. Instead of being self-indulgent, it helps them make the choice of long-term health over short-term pleasure. Instead of letting themselves off the hook, it helps them feel safe enough to take personal responsibility for mistakes. Instead of being selfish, it allows them to give more to others in relationships. And most importantly, instead of undermining their motivation, it increases motivation.”
Four key points stand out, “First, one of the messages of our paper is that the Self-Compassion Scale appears to measure self-compassion the same way in different languages and cultures, thus people with different backgrounds conceptualize self-compassion similarly. Second, there are small sex-related differences in the levels of self-compassion; however, these differences should not be overestimated, and the scale works the same way with men and women. Third, it appears that people might become more self-compassionate as they become older and wiser. Finally, culture appears to have an impact on levels [of] self-compassion," an observation demanding further investigation to understand how self-compassion may be shaped by external factors and influence how we relate to one another.
Given that self-compassion is conserved around the world and is key to so many aspects of self-care and individual function, relationships with others, and function on group and collective levels, the question presents itself: Do we need to become radically compassionate with ourselves and others in order to come together collectively in a way which will allow us to thrive as we move into the 21st century? If we fail at that and continue to function out of mistrust and threat, what are the chances we will work through our issues to arrive at a better world for all?
1. Several measures of invariance were applied to test data for validity—configural invariance, weak invariance, strong invariance, strict invariance, invariance of the variance-covariance matrix, and invariance of the latent means—to examine validity across population type, gender, age, and language.
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