Treating Yourself with Kindness: On Self-Compassion

For several decades, developing self-esteem in children and adults has been the holy grail of fostering healthy attitudes towards the self. Yet, starting in the early 1990s, criticism arose, pointing towards the absence of positive consequences of having high self-esteem, and highlighting several negative consequences, such as dismissing negative feedback or taking less responsibility for harmful actions. In an influential review article from 2003 titled Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles?, Roy Baumeister and colleagues conclude:

We have not found evidence that boosting self-esteem (by therapeutic interventions or school programs) causes benefits. Our findings do not support continued widespread efforts to boost self-esteem in the hope that it will by itself foster improved outcomes.

In the same year, Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin introduced a different kind of healthy attitude towards the self – which may be especially helpful in times of suffering, or when facing adversity: Self-compassion, rooted in the ancient Buddhist traditions of mindfulness and compassion, and Western adaptations such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In the words of Neff:

[…] When faced with experiences of suffering or personal failure, self-compassion entails three basic components: (a) self-kindness — extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh judgment and self-criticism, (b) common humanity — seeing one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and (c) mindfulness — holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.

self_compassion_framework_neu

Furthermore:

[…] Self-compassion may entail many of the psychological benefits that have been associated with self-esteem, but with fewer of its pitfalls. Self-compassion represents a positive emotional stance towards oneself, in that one extends feelings of kindness and caring toward oneself. It helps to motivate productive behavior and protect against the debilitating effects of self-judgment such as depression and anxiety. Self-compassion, however, is not based on the performance evaluations of self and others, or on congruence with ideal standards. In fact, self-compassion takes the entire self-evaluation process out of the picture […].

In the meantime, self-compassion has shown to be a valuable tool for personal development and fighting symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Long-form and short-form scales for measuring self-compassion have been developed, an effective training program has been devised, and a recent meta-analysis finds that fostering self-compassion effectively helps to alleviate several psychopathologies (please see links to research papers below. You can find out more about self-compassion (e.g., free exercises and training opportunities) via Kristin Neff´s homepage.

Some of the core papers on self-compassion (linking to PDFs):

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