How often do you call your best friend a loser? Do you frequently use adjectives like “fat” or “lazy” when describing your bestie? Probably not. Chances are that sort of toxicity would quickly sever even the tightest of bonds. Instead, many of us reserve the worst verbal assaults for ourselves. We truly are our own worst enemies. When we aren’t sleeping or talking, we’re engaged in a silent monologue, listing a litany of our faults and shortcomings. The constant barrage isn’t just mentally unhealthy—it can do real physical damage as well. Although self-compassion may sound like the latest self-help buzz word, the practice has nearly two decades of anecdotal evidence supporting its mental health benefits. Now recent research suggests it can lower our risk of heart disease as well. So what is self-compassion exactly, how can we use it, and what does the research reveal?
What is Self-Compassion?
Popularized by psychologist Kristin Neff and inspired by Buddhist principles, self-compassion not only formed the core of Neff’s post-doctoral research but inspired her bestselling book Self-kindness, Common Humanity, and Mindfulness. She describes self-compassion as kindness directed toward the self. As she explains on her website, it’s “a radically new way of relating to ourselves. [It] is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings. In other words, even though the friendly, supportive stance of self-compassion is aimed at the alleviation of suffering, we can’t always control the way things are. If we use self-compassion practice to try to make our pain go away by suppressing it or fighting against it, things will likely just get worse.”
Instead, she advocates mindfulness as an important first step. This Buddhist practice requires living in the moment and observing the self as a disinterested observer. This can be challenging. Our mind naturally interferes. It’s a short journey from concentrating on pouring a cup of coffee to wishing we were enjoying it at our fave coffee shop. From there, it can take mere seconds before we stop anticipating the java and turn toward criticizing our choices. That’s why mindfulness, like self compassion, is a learned behavior.
In studies, mindfulness has been shown to help prevent patients from relapsing into depression. It has also helped reduce anxiety and even alleviate cardiovascular problems. Older research suggested it may help rewire the brain while a newer examination of mindfulness practices noted how many adherents incorrectly use it passively. As study author Igor Grossmann, a professor of social psychology, told Forbes, “Scientific understanding of mindfulness goes beyond mere stress-relief and requires a willingness to engage with stressors. It is, in fact, the engagement with stressors that ultimately results in stress relief. More specifically, mindfulness includes two main dimensions: awareness and acceptance.”
Yet self-directed kindness and mindfulness are not the only components of self-compassion. The last is what’s called “common humanity.” This is the sense of being connected with other people through our shared characteristics. Going back over 60 years to Abraham’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it reflects how we all crave a sense of belonging, love, and acceptance from others. Thus, true self-compassion doesn’t exist in a vacuum of solitude but is rather an active choice that leads us toward being more interconnected with other people. By being compassionate with ourselves, we can more easily be compassionate toward others.
How to Practice Self-Compassion
Like the 50-year-old self-help tome, How To Be Your Own Best Friend, self-compassion is about treating ourselves like our favorite bestie. It can go hand in hand with self care, the practice enjoying a pandemic-driven rise in popularity. When you start treating yourself as you would a child or a pet, not only will you be more accepting of your mistakes, you may decide they weren’t mistakes at all. Accepting who you are in the moment, without judgment or the feeling that you’d be happier if you could only change is a critical component of self compassion.
The people with the loudest inner critics often grew up in abusive homes or otherwise witnessed very little compassion among grown-ups. However just about everyone, no matter the circumstances of their upbringing, occasionally lobs a self-directed insult. Changing that inner voice to one of kindness and acceptance can make a real difference in the real world. Psychologists report that people practicing self-compassion have lower rates of anxiety and depression. They are also less likely to remain in abusive relationships since, if you treat yourself well, you tend to be less tolerant when others treat you poorly. It has been shown to improve body image and disordered eating.
Although the emotional strength gained from self compassion is often connected to female empowerment, men can benefit from the practice as well. Although men score higher in rates of self-compassion, they also struggle with a critical inner voice and are less likely to seek help. While many of the benefits from self-compassion accrue equally to both genders, a recent study focused on women and whether or not the practice could reduce heart disease.
At the University of Pittsburgh, nearly 200 women were enrolled in the study. After completing a short questionnaire asking them to rate such issues as how often they feel inadequate and their tendency to be kind toward themselves during challenging times, the women were given an ultrasound of their carotid arteries––the conduit for blood from the heart to the brain. There was a clear link between higher scores for self-compassion and thinner carotid artery walls along with lower residual plaque buildup. Thick walls and heavy build-up increases the risk for heart attacks and strokes.
As one of the study’s authors, Rebecca Thurston, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, clinical and translational science, epidemiology, and psychology at Pitt explained, “These findings underscore the importance of practicing kindness and compassion, particularly towards yourself,” said Thurston. “We are all living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests that self-compassion is essential for both our mental and physical health.” While being loving and kind toward ourselves isn’t.
Written by John Bankston
- University of Oxford Mindfulness Research Centre
- What do people mean when they talk about mindfulness?
- New frontiers in understanding the benefits of self-compassion
- Help seeking in men: when masculinity and self-compassion collide
- Self-compassion and subclinical cardiovascular disease among midlife women