Why is being kind to ourselves so radically important to our wellbeing?
Self-compassion is quickly becoming recognized as one of the most impactful psychological skills to cultivate, and there are now 1000+ research studies demonstrating its impact on boosting wellbeing and resilience, as well as reducing the risk of mental illnesses. My own experience echoes these research findings, as I’ve found self-compassion to be a powerful catalyst for my own personal growth as well as critically relevant in every aspect of my work. I work with individuals, groups and organizations to support effective behavior change, enhance wellbeing and cultivate resilience, and have found self-compassion highly relevant for each of these endpoints. But why is this the case? Why is being kind to ourselves so radically important to our wellbeing?
Well, there are several reasons for this.
First and foremost, self-compassion teaches us how to strengthen and harness a circuit in all human brains known as the care circuit. The care circuit is activated every time we feel warmth, connection and compassion. This is the circuit that is activated every time we bond with others and feel warmth, love and compassion - our brains are literally wired to experience these feelings. This circuit is required for bonding and caretaking and is partly what separates mammals from other animals (such as reptiles) who do not put in the same effort into caring for and nurturing their young. Many evolutionary biologists now agree that the pro-social tendencies it inspires - our capacity for caring for one another and cooperating - is part of what makes humans so successful as a species.
When we are young children, we learn how to regulate our emotions through soothing interactions with our caregivers. Our care circuits are activated when we receive this warmth and tenderness. Importantly, as adults we can learn how to emotionally regulate ourselves through activating this same circuit. So much so that when we do have a particularly strong feeling of compassion, even when directing that compassion inward, our brains can even release the powerful bonding and stress reduction hormone Oxytocin, as well as endogenous opiates.
Self-compassion activates and strengthens this circuit, which at least partly accounts for the finding that it significantly improves almost every single manifestation of psychological distress, including sadness, anxiety, depression, stress, anger, shame as well as many other negative emotions. It can help us re-wire our attachment styles and even change negative beliefs we have about ourselves. Learning to strengthen this circuit and activate it as needed makes people far more resilient and leads to greater wellbeing.
Before we delve further into the details of these dynamics, it would be helpful to define and clarify what we mean by self-compassion. According to Kristen Neff, the first psychologist to systematically study self-compassion, self-compassion has 3 primary aspects:
The first major aspect of self-compassion involves being kind to ourselves. It involves responding to our failures and disappointments with self-kindness rather than harsh self-judgment. So often when we make mistakes or find ourselves disappointed or frustrated we tend to judge ourselves harshly, beat ourselves up, and sometimes feel as if this shouldn't even be happening. We might even feel that there is something wrong with us for having this disappointment or making this mistake. As Christopher Germer describes it, when we’re exposed to physical danger, like all animals, humans react with a fight, flight or freeze response that is wired into our neurobiology. However, in this case, we go into the fight, flight or freeze response in reaction to our own negative thoughts and feelings. So, when we experience negative events (including negative thoughts) our default response is one of self-criticism, self-isolation and self-absorption.
Self-kindness means that we counter these tendencies and accept that mistakes, disappointments and failures are a natural and inevitable part of being a human on this planet. Rather than the default fight, flight or freeze response, we can instead choose to tend and befriend, another instinctive response to stress (though we typically respond this way to the stress of those we care for rather to than our own stress).
Self-kindness means we befriend ourselves on a deep level. We don't demand perfection of ourselves, and we forgive ourselves for all the ways we may fall short of our ideals. We accept that its NORMAL to be imperfect, rather than blaming or criticizing ourselves for not measuring up.
A key feature of self-kindness also involves bringing warm, loving tenderness to one’s experience. Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychologist and emotions researcher, writes that the experience of this loving warmth (which she simply refers to as “love”), and the capacity to generate it is the single most positive intervention out there. She writes that it’s more powerful than joy, hope and gratitude, because when these emotions are shared, they turn into an experience of that warm, loving tenderness. Just as importantly, Fredrickson found that when people learned how to self-generate feelings of warmth and kindness, they experienced more of every other positive emotion, including joy, gratitude, engagement and serenity. Fredrickson even goes as far as to say that “whereas all positive emotions provide benefits - each, after all, broadens your mindset and builds your resourcefulness, the benefits of love run far deeper, perhaps exponentially so[i].”
The second major aspect of self-compassion involves putting our experience into perspective, recognizing that all people suffer and we aren’t alone in it, and recognizing that its human and normal to go through difficulty. In self compassion training, we refer to this sense of enlarged perspective as common humanity. So often when things in life don't go how we want them to, we can get frustrated and can even start to feel isolated or alone in that frustration. It’s as if we look at everyone else in our lives and imagine that their lives are going perfectly and that there is something wrong with US or our life that makes things go differently for us. We can feel disconnected from others and maybe even want to withdraw because of how poorly or disappointed or dejected or frustrated we feel. Common humanity reminds us that EVERYBODY, every single person on this planet, also suffers disappointments and failures. Not only are we no longer isolated by our suffering and disappointment but we can actually find ourselves in greater connection with others because of it. Common humanity allows us to put our difficulties into perspective so that we realize that it’s both normal and human to go through whatever we are going through. All people feel frustrated, wretched, afraid, lonely, sad, disappointed, overwhelmed and stressed sometimes. Maybe even all these things at once!
The third major aspect of self-compassion is mindfulness rather than over-identification. In order to respond to our difficulties with self-compassion we first need to NOTICE that we are even having a difficult experience in the first place. Mindfulness allows us to recognize that we are having a difficult experience and to turn towards our difficulty without getting carried away by it. Without being mindful, we may never realize what we are thinking and the grip that our thinking has on us. Mindfulness allows us to see our internal experience but not get carried away by the "woe is me" story.
Jill Bolt Taylor, in her book A Stroke of Insight, said that emotions have a natural life in our bodies of 90 seconds. However, it’s when we attach stories to them, when we get caught in the narrative of our interpretation of these emotions, that they persist. What could otherwise arise and fall within 90 seconds turns into moods and can even turn into mental illnesses because we feed it with the energy of our storytelling.
We've all heard about the benefits of mindfulness, which have been wildly popularized by now. What is much less well known is that the benefits of self-compassion encompass the benefits of mindfulness and extend beyond them. For example, a study conducted by Kristen Neff and her colleagues demonstrated that self-compassion had an even stronger link with optimism, positive affect, wisdom coping, happiness and personal initiative than mindfulness[ii].
Looking more deeply at the research
Self-compassion has been associated with greater levels of optimism and happiness[iii], as well as with reduced levels of rumination, anxiety and depression[iv]. Further, a meta-analysis surveying the breadth of research on self-compassion explored the link between self-compassion and psychopathology and found that self-compassion had a large effect size on reducing the risk of psychopathology[v]. A large effect size is rarely seen in the arena of medical and psychological interventions, so this finding was surprising and hopeful.… But how does self compassion exert such a powerful impact on these outcomes?
Firstly, several studies have demonstrated that a key impact of cultivating self-compassion is lower levels of self-criticism. This is important because self-criticism is a risk factor for anxiety and depression[vi], amongst other negative outcomes.
Often, people with high levels of self-criticism are afraid to take risks and fail, because of how painful it can be when they flagellate themselves in response to their mistakes. Self-compassion, on the other hand, accepts that failures and mistakes are inevitable and a normal part of being human. Because of its impact on our attitudes towards our mistakes and imperfections, higher levels of self-compassion have been associated with lower levels of neurotic perfectionism[vii].
Similarly, another study demonstrated that low self-compassion was associated with a greater tendency to procrastinate[viii], and with maladaptive perfectionism, meaning that people who had low levels of self-compassion were more likely to procrastinate and be perfectionistic than people with high levels of self-compassion. Interestingly though, research shows that high levels of self-compassion do not impact people’s personal standards[ix]. This is important because one of the biggest obstacles to people practicing self-compassion is the fear that they’ll become self-indulgent, lazy and unmotivated. As this research shows, however, people with high levels of self-compassion do NOT relax their personal standards, and are even less likely to procrastinate, suggesting that they might even be better equipped to reach their goals.
Far from making people lazy and unmotivated, self-compassion allows people to tap into powerful inner sources of motivation. For example, self-compassion has been associated with greater levels of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, and with pursuing mastery goals rather than performance goals[x]. Mastery goals are linked with intrinsic motivation, and people pursue mastery goals because they are personally driven to learn something rather than because they are seeking approval, recognition, or another extrinsic reward. Self-compassion is also linked with taking more of a growth mindset towards one's work, as well as a lower fear of failure and higher levels of perceived competence. For example, a 2005 study showed that when students high in self compassion were more likely to see academic failure as an opportunity for improvement[xi].
People are great at distorting or dissociating from information about themselves that they don’t want to see. Self-compassion makes negative information about oneself less painful to acknowledge, allowing people to take a more realistic look at their own shortcomings. For example, a 2007 study[xii] asked 102 participants to perform a task that felt awkward to them and then asked them to assess their own performance. The participants who scored low in self compassion were more likely to underestimate their performance, whereas the participants who scored high in self-esteem were more likely to overestimate their performance. In contrast, the participants who scored highly in self compassion showed the greatest likelihood to realistically rate their own performance. This suggests that self-compassion may promote a more realistic and accurate assessment of one’s competency. Whereas high self-esteem is linked with narcissism, self-compassion is unrelated to narcissism[xiii].
Many researchers believe that self-compassion allows people to take a realistic look at their own behaviors and competencies without needing to be defensive. For another, interesting example of this, a 2016 study showed that people high in self compassion were more likely to realistically acknowledge their own moral failings, suggesting that people high in self compassion might be more willing to take responsibility for their own conduct.
Personally, I noticed that I started apologizing to people a lot more once I had really developed self-compassion skills. I also started to take more responsibility for the areas of my life that needed more improvement, as self-compassion allowed me to more constructively address my problems. This is because I no longer beat myself up every time I do something I regret, and I’m therefore able to take more responsibility for it. It’s made me a better partner, friend and family member, while at the same time also allowing me to set better boundaries and take care of myself. I’ve seen it have a huge impact on my clients as well, allowing themselves to set boundaries around their self-care, and importantly, to forgive themselves when they fall short of their ideals.
Research also demonstrates that self-compassion can help people set better boundaries, perhaps because it makes us less dependent on external approval in order to feel worthy of love and acceptance. A 2011 study[xiv] amongst clergy members demonstrated that clergy with higher ratings of self-compassion had a greater ability to decline requests and a lower desire to please their congregants.
Overall, the research paints a compelling picture of the mechanisms through which self-compassion exerts such a powerful impact on our wellbeing. In helping us emotionally regulate and soothe ourselves, self-compassion allows us to better handle the challenges we face in our lives. And then, equipped with the knowledge that we have the capacity to tolerate difficulty, we have greater confidence in our ability to engage with life and put ourselves out there. And when we do put ourselves out there and fail, Self-compassion also allows us to forgive ourselves, allowing us to take a more constructive look at what went wrong, and to take more responsibility for our role in the situation.
Both the research and my own experience with self compassion leave me with a strong conviction in the benefits of this practice. So much so that I’ve made it a cornerstone of my work. The applications of this practice are nearly endless, and its an exciting time to be at the forefront of the movement to bring this to different contexts.
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[i] Fredrickson, Love 2.0 p. 10
[ii] Neff, 2008, April 16th
[iii] Neff et al 2007, Neff & Vonk 2009
[iv] Neff 2003a, Raes 2010, Neff & Vonk 2009
[v] MacBeth and Gumley, 2012
[vi] Blatt, 1995
[vii] Neff 2003a
[viii] Williams et al 2008
[ix] Neff 2003a
[x] Neff et al 2005
[xi] Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2005
[xii] Leary et al, 2007
[xiii] Webster & Kruglanski, 1994
[xiv] Bernard & Curry, 2011