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Breaking Up? Give Yourself a Break

Breaking up is hard to do, but self-compassion can help.

There is no shortage of advice on how to recover from a bad break-up: Keep busy, don't contact your ex, go out with friends, listen to "I Will Survive" on repeat. But according to a recent study, something important is missing from this list.

In the study, led by David Sbarra and published in Psychological Science, participants who had recently separated from their spouses were recorded talking for four minutes in a stream-of-consciousness format about the separation. Then four judges rated the extent to which these statements included evidence of self-compassion, which involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding rather than beating yourself up when things go wrong.

For example, one participant who received a high self-compassion score said the following “ is just something that...happens these days, and I guess it is happening more often than not these days so...that is what the situation is...and you tell yourself you’re not the only person to experience this.” This statement expresses a sense of common humanity, or recognition that suffering is part of the human experience, which is considered a fundamental part of self-compassion.

Another participant, who received a low self-compassion score, said: “I don’t know how I managed to do this. It was all my fault, I pushed him away for some reason. I needed him so much, still need him...What did I do? I know I did it all wrong.” In contrast to the first statement, this one includes a high degree of self-judgment, with no evidence of self-kindness.

At three-month intervals over the next nine months, participants completed measures assessing their psychological adjustment to the separation, such as how often they still think about it and how distressed it makes them feel. Results indicated that participants who were judged to be higher in self-compassion showed less distress at the beginning of the study and at the nine-month mark, while those low in self-compassion showed a greater increase in distress between six and nine months.

The researchers controlled for a large number of other variables known to predict well-being and adjustment, such as self-esteem, attachment style, depression, and relationship length. Self-compassion was a unique predictor of adjustment, suggesting that it represented a critical part of the recovery process. Although self-compassion was assessed as a stable trait rather than trained, developing self-compassion might help people better cope with romantic break-ups. If you're interested in learning more about how to increase your own self-compassion, you should check out Kristin Neff's website, which includes a number of helpful resources.


Sbarra, D., Smith, H., & Mehl, M. (2012). When Leaving Your Ex, Love Yourself: Observational Ratings of Self-Compassion Predict the Course of Emotional Recovery Following Marital Separation Psychological Science, 23 (3), 261-269 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429466

This post previously appeared on Psych Your Mind.

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