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 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):

The New York Times on Positive Psychology and adjacent: My 10 favorite Pieces

New_York_Times_logo_variationI totally admire how top psychology researchers regularly get a lot of airtime in US mass media outlets – doesn´t happen that much here in Germany. The following list comprises 10 (more or less) recent pieces from the venerable New York Times. All of them were written (or cover work) by some of the figureheads of Positive Psychology.

4 Hugs for Survival, 8 for Maintenance, 12 for Growth

I love this quote by the “Mother of Family Therapy”, Virginia Satir. Reminds me of Roy Baumeister´s article Bad is stronger than Good – and how we need to actively counterbalance the impact of negative incidents and encounters in our lives.

Virginia Satir - Hugs

Study: To Belong is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life

Nico Rose - Meaning in LifeOne of the central tenets in Positive Psychology goes as follows: Other People Matter. It was coined by the late Christopher Peterson as the shortest possible summary of research on human wellbeing. Peterson wanted to make the point that having healthy relationships with family, friends, and coworkers turns out to be the strongest predictor of happiness (and oftentimes: health) in most studies on human wellbeing.

A recent study by Nathaniel Lambert et. al titled To Belong is to Matter: Sense of Belonging Enhances Meaning in Life sheds additional light on this relationship. Here´s a shortened version of the article´s abstract:

We found correlational, longitudinal, and experimental evidence that a sense of belonging predicts how meaningful life is perceived to be. Additionally, we found a strong positive correlation between sense of belonging and meaningfulness. Furthermore, we found that initial levels of sense of belonging predicted perceived meaningfulness of life, obtained 3 weeks later. Furthermore, initial sense of belonging predicted independent evaluations of participants essays on meaning in life.

In short, what they are saying is:

Belonging = Meaning

Or, more precisely: If I matter to other people, my life matters.

“To Thine Own Self Be True”: Self-Concordance and Healthy Goal-Striving

Self-Determination TheoryPeople have goals. In fact, that may be the defining element of our human nature. We´ve been called the “Knowing Man” (Homo sapiens), the “Learning Man” (Homo discens) and even the “Story-telling Man” (Homo narrans) – among lots of other things. In one of their latest works, Martin Seligman, spiritus rector of Positive Psychology, and Roy Baumeister posit that we are “Homo prospectus”: the “envisioning man” – precisely due to the fact that we are always “drawn by the future”. We are always “on to something”: places to go, people to meet, things to do. On a closer look, it is strikingly odd trying to imagine a (living and healthy) person that does not have any goals, however small they may be.  To that effect, we are also drawn by our future selves. There is always an upgrade, a “Me 2.0”. It may wait around the next corner or in a distant future – but again: it´s hard to imagine a person that has stopped trying to “become something else” (and most likely: something “better” – whatever that may be).

So, if goals and goal-striving play such an important part in all our lives: Why does it go wrong so often? Why do people lose their motivation while being on their way? Or, even more interesting: Why do they reach their goals and end up being disillusioned and unhappier than they were before? Some very valuable answers to these questions are provided by Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and the Self-Concordance Model of (healthy) goal-striving (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999), an adjacent framework.

Self-Determination Theory* suggests there are four distinguishable levels of motivation, or more precisely: regulations of behavior: integrated, identified, introjected, and external. The level is determined by the degree of internalization of a specific goal – you might also say: how close it is to our “true selves”; and it´s also a way of describing the path from very little to full autonomy in the process of pursuing a goal.

  • External: When we are forced to do something or carry out an action only because of an external reward (“In it for the money…”).
  • Introjected: When we rely on external goals and standards of evaluation, trying (more or less fruitlessly) to “make them our own”: E.g., doing something in order to raise our own self-esteem.
  • Identified: When we really get to the point of making a once external goal “our own”. This involves willfully appreciating a goal so that it is accepted as personally important.
  • Integrated: When behavioral regulation is entirely assimilated with self and therefore included in a person’s self-evaluations and beliefs about personal needs.

Integrated motivation shares a lot of attributes with intrinsic motivation but is nonetheless classified as extrinsic – because the goal in question is still pursued for reasons extrinsic to the self, rather than the inherent enjoyment of the task.

Self-Concordance and healthy Goal-Striving

The Self-Concordance Model takes the above-mentioned insights one step further. Let´s have a look at the abstract of the first scientific article describing the theory:

The self-concordance of goals (i.e., their consistency with the person’s developing interests and core values) plays a dual role in the model. First, those pursuing self-concordant goals put more sustained effort into achieving those goals and thus are more likely to attain them. Second, those who attain self-concordant goals reap greater well-being benefits from their attainment. Attainment-to-well-being effects are mediated by need satisfaction, i.e., daily activity-based experiences of autonomy, competence, and relatedness that accumulate during the period of striving.

Self-ConcordanceSo the basic idea is pretty straight-forward: We exert more effort when pursuing goals that are “close to our heart” (contrary to mostly extrinsically regulated goals). More effort leads to progress and a higher likelihood of goal attainment. And in turn, reaching goals makes us happy. But that´s not the end of the story: When we choose to pursue self-concordant goals, the act of moving forward is satisfying in itself. Why is that the case? The theory posits that pursuing self-concordant goals is associated with satisfying three basic psychological needs: The needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

  • Competence: We desperately want to feel competent, at least in those areas of life that are of interest to us. Think of a small child that has just learned a new skill. Typically, it will use this capability over and over again – just for the fun of it.
  • Autonomy: We desperately want to feel in control of our lives, and being able to make our own decisions. Think of a small child that discovers it´s free will and enjoys to do so. The “Terrible Twos” are something parents should be proud of – even though it´s probably difficult to enjoy at that time.
  • Relatedness: We desperately want to feel close to other people (that are important in our lives), we want to feel accepted, and at best: loved. Think of a small child that seeks the comfort of his parents after some time of absence.

Basic Psychological NeedsAnd while I have been talking of small children to make a point: those needs are active in all of us to a varying degree. And it does not stop until the end of this life. Ask yourself:

Do I foster an environment that caters to the fulfillment of these needs with regards to the people I´m involved with?

Here´s some research:

So, these are the answers to the questions from the second paragraph of this article:

  • We experience lack of motivation and failure of self-regulation when we pursue goals that aren´t close enough to our true selves. We may get by for some time clinging to external rewards – but that´s never the “real McKoy
  • We do not cherish our victories when the goals we´ve pursued were never our own in the first place. In that case, “getting there” doesn´t feel sweet and rewarding, but rather stale and phony.

You can learn a lot about that last point from the final chapter of my book – which unfortunately is still only available in German…

*The circular image of SDT has been adapted from a diagram in the aforementioned article on SDT and coaching. An overview of  hundreds (literally…) of studies can be found here. Enjoy!

My Mind´s MAP(P): The 4-minute Ivy League Diploma in Positive Psychology

MAPP 9 Superhero MedalFor one of our MAPP final papers, we were asked to come up with a list of bits and pieces of insight, those “eureka moments of comprehension” we´ve had over the two semesters at Penn. I´d like to share those with you as a kind of “MAPP in a nutshell”. As I like to tie knowledge to those teachers that are “responsible” for my comprehension, I will present them to you in that way. Therefore, I´ve created a list of (to my knowledge) all the persons that have taught in MAPP 9 at one point or the other, and will name those that have provided me with an especially memorable insight. Those perceptions do encompass theoretical insights from positive psychology, its real-world application (or its contribution to real-world application of other psychological concepts), or style of (teaching) delivery…

Roy Baumeister: Bad is stronger than good (precisely: bad events and emotions create a stronger and longer-lasting impact on our brains). Therefore, we need to purposefully create more positive events and emotions in our lives to counterbalance this one-sidedness (with a tip to the hat to John Gottman…).

Dan Bowling: Everything that can be done can also be done with style. It makes the world a brighter place.

Art Carey: Has shown me how important the process of writing is for my own life – and that part of my future career should consist of getting paid for being a “wielder of words”.

David Cooperrider: Words create worlds. Accordingly, positive words will create (mostly) positive worlds – whereas negative words will create (mostly) negative worlds. So use your words wisely, especially your questions – as they tend to create the worlds within other people´s minds.

Angela Duckworth/Peggy Kern: Woohoo! Learning (and teaching…) statistics can be fun. Go figure…

Jane Dutton: High-Quality Connections (HQC) are the high-octane fuel of every organization. Suspend your judgment and try to walk a mile in your fellow men´s shoes before coming to any conclusion. Build trust via giving open, positive feedback – if possible, on a daily basis.

Chris Feudtner: Keeping an open heart while working in dark places (e.g. palliative care units for children) can grant you an enormous “aura” and tangible “clarity of the mind”. When there´s nothing left, there can still be hope. What do we hope for – when there´s no other option left but hope?

Barbara Fredrickson: Positive emotions are not a trifle. They are essential building blocks for our well-being and should be fostered actively.

Adam Grant: It is more blessed smarter to give than to receive. Being altruistic does not turn you into a doormat. It can lead to success, even in competitive corporate environments.

Jonathan Haidt: 1) There are no good reasons (at least not good enough) to be pessimistic about the fate of mankind. Judged by most empirical indicators, it´s not foolish to say that we are on an “upwards trajectory”: things are bound to get better. On that note, I would also like to thank my classmate David Nevill for giving me the sentence “We never have enough data to be pessimistic.” It continues to inspire me, even on a sort of metaphysical level. 2) Look to the extreme ends of the (positive) emotional continuum, e.g., to emotions such as awe and elevation. They may be powerful change catalysts.

Emilia Lahti: You have tons of soul mates somewhere out there. They may live at the other end of the world. But eventually, some of them will find you (especially if you start a blog, that is…)

Ellen Langer: Everything that can be done is worth being done mindful. It leads to better results and more satisfaction. Plus: Don´t fear getting old.

Daniel Lerner: Everything that can be done can also be done with “an eye for excellence”. It pushes the boundaries of human achievement.

Chris Major: A man with a true purpose is (almost) unstoppable.

Ryan Niemiec: 1) Strengths matter more than frailties. They are the key to our “true self” and the building blocks on our road to (work and life) satisfaction. 2) A movie is never “just a movie”. It´s a lesson on character strengths.

Off the Beat: Singing is life!

Ken Pargament: Even atheists value the “sacred moments” in their lives. Find them, cultivate them, and cherish them. They are valuable.

James Pawelski: 1) Trust the process. 2) It´s always valuable not to be the smartest person in the room. 3) Know which giants´ shoulders you are standing on. 4) There is nothing more practical than a good theory (and a proper definition). 5) Know the limits of your knowledge. 6) Positive psychology is grounded in meliorism (the belief that people/things can improve/be better than they are today). 7) You can be a proper scientist and nevertheless enjoy Tony Robbins.

Isaac Prilleltensky: Fairness on the community and societal level influences our individual well-being. Countries with developed democracies, a high degree of personal freedom, generous social security systems and relatively small gaps between top earners and “normal” workers are the happiest (on average)

John Ratey/Tom Rath: Move your ASS! Your brain will appreciate it.

Ann Roepke: Our life is a narrative and as such, we do have tremendous power over it by actively re-writing or pre-writing the storylines.

Esa Saarinen: Don´t hold back. Create systems of generosity. Err on the giving side. Embrace your inner (and outer!) “weird”.

Barry Schwartz: 1) Most times, “good” is “good enough”. 2) Purposefully limit the choices you have to make in life. E.g., choose not to choose by setting defaults and creating habits.

Martin Seligman: Think and dream big.

Daniel Tomasulo: Everything that can be done can also be done with a twinkle in the eye. Makes hard work feel “easy”.

Amy Wrzesniewski: Purpose and meaning (at work) are the result of finding work that integrates your strengths, passions, and values. The calling comes from within. Other people matter (at work, too).

I am deeply thankful to all of you!


P.S. Thanks to my classmate Linda Rufer for designing those MAPP 9 superhero medals. The backside says I was voted “most mappalicious” person in our cohort. Whatever that means at the end of the day… 🙂