How to Be Good (to Yourself)

Research-based ideas for increasing self-compassion

Posted Apr 16, 2012

Imagine that you just made a costly mistake at work or committed a serious social faux pas—how would you react? If you're like many people, your initial reaction might be to chastise yourself for your error, verbally beating yourself up. In small doses, self-criticism certainly has its place. It encourages us to take responsibility and make amends (see new research suggesting that guilt is good for you). But excessive self-criticism can be debilitating and self-defeating.

Is there a better way? In 2003, Kristin Neff, a psychologist at UT Austin, argued that researchers should pay more attention to self-compassion, a way of treating yourself that involves kindness and understanding rather than harsh self-judgment. Since then, research on self-compassion has blossomed, documenting many benefits for well-being and mental health. Some of these findings are reviewed in Dr. Neff's Psychology Today blog

That's great, you might be thinking, but easier said than done. It's hard to change our habitual ways of relating to ourselves, just as it can be hard to break dysfunctional patterns in our relationships with others. It's definitely not something that happens overnight. But we have to start somewhere. Here are a few of my favorite approaches to increasing self-compassion. 

1. Step outside yourself. It's often easier to be compassionate toward someone else than it is to be compassionate toward yourself. To trick yourself into treating yourself better, pretend that someone you care about is in your shoes instead—what would you say to them? Probably something kinder than what you would say to yourself. A variation of this exercise involves adopting the perspective of someone who cares about you. These types of exercises have been used successfully in previous research.

2. Find your inner caregiver. For those who had compassionate caregivers growing up, self-compassion may come more easily (Neff & McGeHee, 2009). But when models of compassion are not readily available, all hope is not lost. In a chapter of Paul Gilbert's edited volume, Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research, and Use in Psychotherapy, Psychologist Deborah Lee discusses an intervention that involves drawing comfort from a "perfect nurturer"—a person or spiritual being who is unconditionally loving, and who possesses whatever characteristics one would hope for in a caregiver. Similarly, Paul Gilbert and Sue Procter developed an approach called Compassionate Mind Training that includes generating images of warmth and directing them toward the self. 

3. Remember that mistakes make you human—and more likeable. In a classic study of the pratfall effect, researchers found that participants liked a person who spilled coffee on themselves better than a person who didn't spill, as long as the spiller seemed otherwise competent. When other people make mistakes, they often seem more human and accessible, even endearing. They also make us feel like it's okay if we too are imperfect. So if you make a blunder, not only might it make you more likeable, but you can think of it as an altruistic act, allowing others to let their guard down too.