Self Compassion – How Caring for Others can Bring you Success and Happiness
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Afraid of public speaking? You’re not alone – more than 70% of Americans suffer from speech anxiety.
The butterflies, light-headedness, sweaty palms, fidgety legs, shaky knees, and incoherent mumbling? All normal.
But accepting that it’s normal? Not so normal.
By skipping, ignoring, and even resisting the truth that failure is normal, we’re losing out on a powerful tool for change – for getting over speech anxiety or for finally losing weight.
Don’t worry, this isn’t another post about the dangers of optimism.
This is a lighthearted story of defeat, inspiration, and redemption. Of what a person can accomplish when they have the courage to look bleak reality in its face.
Or something like that.
When I was 13 years old, I was one of the worst public speakers of my grade. A year-end speech in front of my classmates left me frozen and full of shame.
A few years later, I had become one of the best public speakers – in my high-school, and then in my college.
Whether it was a mock trial, monetary policy, or business presentation, I went from being one of the worst to usually the best or second-best. Twice, my public speaking skills bought me entry to The Federal Reserve Board of Governors, where I got to meet Ben Bernanke, the sexy bald guy that tries to control the American economy.
My public speaking skills helped me start a company and get my first full-time job.
What? You’re saying I missed a section…. The inspiration?
Ah, that’s right. There wasn’t any.
There was no chance encounter that fortuitously changed my fate – no girl I was trying to impress or mentor who pushed me to reach my full potential.
I wasn’t particularly motivated. The public speaking clubs at my high-school had dozens of members just as active as me.
I wasn’t naturally talented. I was born into this world with average levels of charisma (that is, not very much).
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just lucky.
Lucky enough to take personal responsibility.
When other people lost, they searched for an excuse – “the judge wasn’t being fair”, “the opponents were too good”, “I was just born a bad speaker”, “oh I don’t really care that I did so bad, I was just doing it for fun.” I never did that.
I took personal responsibility. I told myself, “no matter how unfair the judge or good the opponents, if I had done things differently, I could have won. I do care, so now, what can I do to increase my chances of winning the next time?”
Repeated a few dozen times over the course of a few years, and I had slowly turned my weaknesses into strengths.
Most people didn’t do that. Most people don’t do that.
Until a month ago, I didn’t know why. What was it that made that personal responsibility so natural?
It wasn’t self-esteem.
For sure, high self-esteem is charismatic and self-assuring. But it can be dangerous too (click to show).
High self-esteem is positively correlated with narcissism, bullying, and verbal aggression, and “although having high levels of self-esteem is related to reduced anxiety, the goal of validating self-esteem by avoiding demonstrations of one’s worthlessness is related to increased anxiety.” (the role of self-compassion in romantic; the costly pursuit of self-esteem)
Let me give you two examples.
My parents never told me to “just be yourself”.
For which I’m glad, because that advice is a form of shifting responsibility from oneself onto others in order to promote artificial self-esteem. The idea goes – if the judge, girl, or employer doesn’t like you, you should “stay true to yourself and try again with someone who can appreciate you better”. BS.
There’s no reason to modify the entirety of our individuality in response to social pressure, but our bad habits? slovenly appearance? unprofessionalism? lack of expertise? boringness? But, you say, tell a kid that the reason they can’t get dates is that their appearance needs an upgrade, and their self-esteem is likely going to nosedive. Not if they’re a real man, with self-compassion.
Everyone needs some help at some point in their lives. And that kid doesn’t need to be the most handsome in town – he just needs to look OK. Or does he?
The other dangers of artificial self-esteem.
*Kids may not even care much about their physical appearance… until society tells them to.
**According to Carol Dweck, author of several popular books on motivation, “If I tried, I would actually be pretty amazing” is a common failure mode.
Another potential consequence of excessive, unconditional praise is the tendency to view failure as evidence of stupidity, rather than as normal human experience. You can read a summary of the research here, or a more in-depth article here.
“You’re average, and that’s OK.”
My parents didn’t congratulate me when I drew random colored lines on a piece of paper and called it a painting. I wasn’t told, “you’re the best!” when, quiet obviously, I wasn’t.
They were loving and supportive but in a different way. Personal responsibility didn’t hurt, because my parents hadn’t accidentally conditioned me to feel bad when I wasn’t above average (actually they did, but only in one area of my life – academics, and that was no accident :)). You can read more about our self-inflicted self-esteem problem here.
As I’ve become more American (I was raised by Indian immigrants), its started hurting for me too. But not back then.
I didn’t have a voice in my head that criticized me when I did poorly.
“You lost, you’re just not a good public speaker. How can you ever hope to become good? C’mon you’ve gotta try harder next time…. Actually, don’t worry. You’re a good speaker. You would have won, but the judge was just biased and unfair.”
“You lost, that’s evidence that you’re just not cut out to be a public speaker. Give it up. No one is going to praise you if you continue losing.”
That’s not what went on inside my head – it’s a very American cultural habit to tie the degree of individual over-performance to self-worth.
All cultures place a large importance on being above average. The difference is that different cultures value different things – on being above average in different areas.Americans place large importance on being individually better. Easterners place large importance on being collectively better.
Americans tend to over-estimate their ability to drive, the value of their contributions to team projects, and their academic and job performance.
Easterners tend to over-estimate their ability to get along with others and fit in (they think they have above average ability in appearing to be average).
At the time, I was as much Indian immigrant as American resident. A more accurate representation of my monologue:
“You lost. That’s okay – that happens to everyone. Now, what can you do to increase your chances of winning next time?”
There was no need for me to search for excuses, for reasons to pass on responsibility or to stop caring. There was no pain that needed avoiding.
There was no self-criticism. Which was great.
Self-criticism is an ineffective motivator.
- “I shouldn’t have eaten so much. How could I be so pathetic?”
- “Why did I say something so mean? I must be the worst human being in the room.”
- “Ugh… how could I have done that? I can’t believe I was so careless/stupid/distracted/naive/oblivious/pathetic/small-minded. Next time, I’d better get it right.”
Think those thoughts are getting you closer to success? That they keep you on your toes, away from lazy complacency?
Sometimes. Other times, they may just be making things worse. There’s a better way – one that doesn’t involve mentally whipping yourself.
A 2012 study found self-compassion to be more motivating than self-criticism,
Participants in a self-compassion condition, compared to a self-esteem control condition…. expressed greater beliefs about a personal weakness; reported greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating a recent moral transgression; spent more time studying for a difficult test following an initial failure; exhibited a preference for upward social comparison after reflecting on a personal weakness; and reported greater motivation to change the weakness.1
Just like with optimism, too much self-compassion can be a problem, but you’re probably not anywhere close to reaching that point.
It isn’t just one study & a personal anecdote – Kristin Neff, the authority on compassion research, goes in-depth on the motivational power of self-compassion here.
Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. I think you’ve tried self-criticism enough times already. Give self-compassion a spin.
But there’s more to it than just motivation.
It isn’t selfish, indulgent, or wimpy. Just like pink shirts, self-compassion is for real men – it takes courage.
1. Self-Compassion feels good.
Three studies which increased levels of self-compassion were found to positively affect several measures of mood and well-being.
- In a 2008 study of loving-kindness meditation, just seven minutes of one-off compassion practice was found to increase short-term levels of mood by 10 to 20%.2
- Repeated over the course of several days and then weeks, the short-term boost become a semi-permanent happiness boost – for as long as the practice continued, the 10 to 20% mood bump persisted.3
- Better still, with continue practice, the mood bump grew and became more permanent. In another 2008 study, after participants had practiced loving-kindness meditation for a few weeks, they could miss several practice sessions in a row without a decline to their mood bump.3
- In a 2007 study of female college students, a one-off exposure to the Gestalt two-chair exercise, a technique for increasing self-compassion, was found to temporarily increase measures of well-being.4
2. Self-Compassion increases life satisfaction.
Life satisfaction is about more than just feeling good – it’s also about having meaningful accomplishments, social relationships, and more. Self-compassion helps here too.
- In the same 2008 study as above, participants also experienced statistically significant increases in life satisfaction.3
- In a 2010 study of adolescents, self-compassion was found to be strongly correlated with measures of well-being and life satisfaction (r=.36).5
- In a 2009 study of college students, self-compassion was found to be strongly correlated with measures of well-being (r=.64) and life satisfaction.6 A 2011 study found similar results, for both college students (r=.51) and adults (r=.53).7
Across all of the studies, “measures of well-being” meant different things, including a combination of measures like life satisfaction, perceived stress, social connectedness, and purpose in life.In the 2008 study, the authors did not actually mention the % increase in life satisfaction, only that there was a statistically significant increase. This suggests that the actual increase was small, perhaps around 5%.
In the 2010 study, self-compassion was found to be strongly correlated with well-being. However, a number of other studies have found that self-compassion and self-esteem are positively correlated. This means that those with more self-compassion also have more self-esteem. As both self-compassion and self-esteem correlate with well-being, the effect of self-compassion after controlling for self-esteem is likely smaller – perhaps half as much.
In the 2007 study, the negative correlation between self-compassion and negative mental patterns like anxiety and rumination is strong (see here), but the absolute increase in compassion and well-being is not reported, again suggesting the increases may have been small.
3. Self-Compassion reduces levels of stress.
In two studies which measured biological markers of stress like blood pressure, those with higher levels of self-compassion were better able to deal with mental and social pressure. Self-compassion is like a good friend that’s always available.
- When asked to give a speech, those who had high levels of self-compassion did not experience as much stress: their systolic and diastolic blood pressure was 12.5% and 14% lower, respectively, than those with low levels of self-compassion.8
- A six week experimental study which trained participants in compassion meditation and then exposed them to stress tests, found “significant correlations between amount of meditation practice and innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress.”9
There is an alternative to growing a thick skin.
4. Self-Compassion alleviates symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Replace nagging self-criticism with some self-love and it’s no surprise that anxiety and depression stand a chance of going away.
- In the 2010 study of adolescents already referenced, self-compassion had a large negative correlation with anxiety (r=-.7).5
- In a 2010 study of anxious and/or depressed adults, levels of self-compassion were found to be two to three times more predictive in avoiding depression (r=.64) and anxiety (r=.4) than mindfulness.10
- In the 2007 study of females already referenced, “Self-compassion was associated with significantly less anxiety after considering one’s greatest weakness (r = -.21, p< .05).” In comparison, self-esteem had half the correlation (r=-.11).4
- In the same study, after self-compassion was experimentally increased, there was a significant decline in self-criticism (r=-.61), depression (r=-.31), and anxiety (r=-.61).4
The 2007 study used only females, meaning that its results cannot be generalized to men. In addition, the stress-buffering effects of self-compassion were only found when the participants perceived the presence of social support. However, this study had poor control, for which reason I believe self-compassion may buffer against stress both when social support is perceived and in neutral situations.The six-week experimental study which trained participants in compassion meditation had a terrible control. It’s possible that the positive effects could have been the results of the meditation in general, and not the compassion meditation in particular. In that case, other popular forms of meditation may have the same effect.
5. Self-Compassion improves relationships.
Across five studies, self-compassion was found to increase prosocial behavior, attitudes, and feelings.
- In the 2008 study already referenced, after participants practiced loving-kindness meditation for a few hours, they reported increases in the amount of social support given and received, and in positive relations with others.3
- In the 2007 study already referenced, after participants had their levels of self-compassion experimentally increased, they reported significantly higher levels of social connectedness.4
- In another 2008 study, seven minutes of loving-kindness meditation was effective in increasing both conscious and subconscious regard of neutral strangers.2
6. Especially romantic relationships ;).
This is one of the key reasons I aim to make myself more self-compassionate.
- A 2012 of 104 couples found self-compassion to be correlated with reduced verbal aggression (r=-.56), dominance (r=-.42), detachment (r=-.19), and increased autonomy (r=.34), acceptance (r=.17), and care (r=.18).11
- Four 2011 studies of college students and newlyweds, two correlational, one experimental, and one longitudinal, found self-compassion to be associated with greater motivation to correct interpersonal mistakes, more constructive problem-solving behaviors, reports of more accommodation, and fewer declines in marital satisfaction. One exception – for men low in conscientiousness (intrapersonal motivation), high self-compassion was actively harmful, reducing the level of all of those great behaviors described in the previous sentence. This result suggests that there are situations in which self-compassion can be harmful.12
I am highly conscientious and realistic about my chances of getting divorced (~20%).
Self-compassion can reduce that probability? I’m sold. Are you?
How can we become more self-compassionate?
There are dozens of exercises you can use, many of which have already been empirically tested.
Self-compassion takes more effort to build than gratitude – a two-minute a day journal won’t cut it. But significant progress is only weeks away if you really want it.
In a 2012 study of an eight-week compassion meditation program, the self-compassion levels of participants increased, on average, by 30%.13 Over the course of the eight weeks, participants meditated for a total of approximately 13 hours.
But don’t despair if you’re lazy like me! The benefits are proportional to the time invested. Even seven minutes every day or three is enough.
Below are the three techniques I found most useful from Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.
1. Hug Yourself
One easy way to soothe and comfort yourself when you’re feeling badly is to give yourself a gentle hug. It seems a bit silly at first, but your body doesn’t know that. It just responds to the physical gesture of warmth and care. Our skin is an incredibly sensitive organ. Research indicates that physical touch releases oxytocin, provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions, and calms cardiovascular stress. So why not try it?
You can do it when no one is looking. Pretend you’re just scratching yourself if someone walks in.
2. Change Your Critical Self-Talk
The next time you are aware of having a self-critical thought, try to dampen or even replace it with a more compassionate one. This is a long-term approach. The only requirement is that you remind yourself, perhaps once a week or once a month, of what you are trying to accomplish. Unlike hugging yourself, which is an easy habit to pick up, directly modifying thought patterns requires frequent refocus.
3. Practice Self-Compassion Meditation
Loving-kindness meditation is the most empirically validated technique for enhancing compassion. It involves focusing on deliberately generating feelings of compassion, first for oneself, then loved ones, then friends, strangers, and finally for enemies.
You can see what it’s like with the video below.
But times have changed. For myself and many others, it has become easier to love another than to love oneself.
I do things a bit differently. First I close my eyes and imagine someone I love and feel very warm toward. Then, instead of verbalizing a mantra, I just focus on generating the emotions of compassion. Once I’ve got a good feel for those emotions, I imagine myself and once again try to generate feelings of compassion.
Probably not as effective, but I don’t like chanting mantras or listening to guided meditations.
Actually doing it.
I hope that this article has changed your view of self-compassion and self-criticism. That the next time you feel like mentally whipping yourself, you’ll be a bit kinder.
Despite knowing of its many benefits, I had a really hard time getting myself started. Self-compassion… just isn’t sexy. I first read about the idea several months ago, but it wasn’t until August that I started making progress. I decided to get serious, and pulled out my behavior modification toolkit:
- Write the damn goal down. Be specific.
- Start small. Make a goal that can be easily accomplished and later ratcheted up in difficulty. Small wins! It’s the start that’s the hardest when it comes to goals!
- Track it. Those things which we track stay top of mind, for both our conscious and subconscious.
- Try out the goal for a few days or weeks and then re-commit to it.
Originally this was all done with pencil and paper, but I transferred it to pdf so that you can see what I did, and, if you’d like, do it yourself:
Don’t you think it’s time to put the whip away?
Find this article useful? Show some compassion for your friends by sharing this with them 🙂
2. Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation
increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8, 720–724.
3. Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.
4. Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and its link to adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.
5. Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.
6. Neely, M. E., Schallert, D. L., Mohammed, S. S., Roberts, R. M., Chen, Y. (2009). Self-kindness when facing stress: The role of self-compassion, goal regulation, and support in college students’ well-being. Motivation and Emotion, 33, 88-97.
7. Wei, M., Liao, K., Ku, T., & Shaffer, P. A. (2011). Attachment, self-compassion, empathy, and subjective well-being among college students and community adults. Journal of Personality, 79, 191-221.
8. Cosley, B. J., McCoy, S. K., Saslow, L. R., & Epel, E. S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(5), 816-823. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2010.04.008
9. Pace, T. W., Negi, L., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., & … Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87-98. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011
10. Van Dam, N. T., Sheppard, S. C., Forsyth, J. P., & Earleywine, M. (2011). Self-compassion is a better predictor than mindfulness of symptom severity and quality of life in mixed anxiety and depression. Journal Of Anxiety Disorders, 25(1), 123-130. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.08.011
11. Neff, K. D. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.
12. Baker, L. R., & McNulty, J. K. (2011). Self-compassion and relationship maintenance: The moderating roles of conscientiousness and gender. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 853-873.
13. Hooria Jazaieri, Geshe Jinpa, Kelly McGonigal, Erika L. Rosenberg, Joel Finkelstein, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Margaret Cullen, James Doty, James Gross, Philippe Goldin (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program. Journal of Happiness Studies,doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z