When you fail at something, or behave in a less than ideal way, how do you treat yourself? Most of us inwardly berate ourselves, creating feelings of guilt and shame, or we criticize ourselves harshly – often much more harshly than we would criticize someone else in the same situation.
People have probably told you in the past to “be kind to yourself” – it’s the kind of thing we say when trying to comfort someone. But we’re often not kind to ourselves at all, and indeed we may think that being kind to ourselves is a weakness or a form of self-indulgence. In fact, the opposite is true. Research has shown clear evidence that self-compassion is important, in many different ways.
What is Self-compassion?
Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem involves thinking good things about yourself, valuing your skills and qualities and abilities, and knowing your intrinsic worth.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is about recognizing that you have faults, but also recognizing that these faults are normal and part of a common human experience. People who are self-compassionate avoid self-criticism and instead accept that their imperfections will sometimes lead to mistakes. It is linked to a mindfulness in the sense that self-compassionate people observe their mistakes and problems objectively instead of internalizing and personalizing them.
To be self-compassionate, you must direct the same amount and kind of love and care to yourself as you would to a loved one. That means not blaming yourself, forgiving yourself and encouraging yourself to take a break from stressful situations. It’s easier said than done, but when mastered, self-compassion seems to have some important implications for our health and wellbeing.
1. Self-compassion Increases Motivation
If you don’t berate yourself over your failures, you’ll just fall into lethargy and won’t have the will to improve next time, right? Wrong, apparently. According to 2012 research by Breines and Chen, practising self-compassion actually increase motivation to do better next time .
The study looked at people’s attitudes following poor test results, awkward social situations and other stressful factors, and found that those practicing self-compassion were more likely to seek to make amends, and more motivated to undertake self-improvement activities.
If you are compassionately mindful of your failure, then, it seems that this removes some of the emotional investment in that failure, freeing your mind to objectively figure out how to do better.
2. Self-compassion Decreases Shame
Shame is an intensely powerful emotion which can and does ruin lives. Researcher Brene Brown believes that shame destroys our ability to change ourselves ; shame has been linked to depression, anxiety, addiction, violence and eating disorders too. In response, Brown developed what she has called the Shame Resilience Theory  which explores the importance of self-compassion and self-forgiveness in relieving shame and guilt or averting them in the first place.
3. Self-compassion Can Moderate Low Self-esteem
A set of 2007 studies by Duke University found that those with low self-esteem who practised self-compassion were able to react less negatively to criticism than they might otherwise have done . In these studies, participants understood a variety of exercises, reflecting on negative events, being rated on their personal qualities and talking about unpleasant experiences. Results confirmed that people who are self-compassionate were able to acknowledge their own role in negative events but without feeling overwhelming emotions. Researchers concluded that self-compassion works differently than self-esteem when people are facing negative issues, and that in some ways, self-compassion is more beneficial than self-esteem.
4. Self-compassion Can Promote Physiological Wellbeing
Is self-compassion all in the mind? No, according to Dr Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion research. According to Dr Neff, self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, which helps us to feel calm, safe and nurtured . Self-compassion also appears to reduce the levels of cortisol in our bodies during stressful situations, reducing the fight or flight response when we are under emotional attack; this enables us to deal with difficult situations more calmly and with fewer negative effects on ourselves .
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
Interestingly, in addition to the above studies and many more on the effects of self-compassion, this is still an emerging area of research. In the 2018 journal article The Brain that Longs to Care for Itself: The Current Neuroscience of Self-compassion, researchers talk about the potential for expanding self-compassion research, via use of PET and EEGs, MRI scans and fMRI imaging . The authors recommend using these kinds of scans before and after participants have taken part in self-compassion training.
If research continues to show that self-compassion can have key effects on mental health, psychology and even physical health, then a greater understanding of the neuroscience involved will be critical in knowing how we can best use this incredible concept in our daily lives.