More Reasons for Self-Compassion

Does kindness matter?  This simple question is central to a recent article in Diabetes Spectrum highlighting research revealing the health benefits of self-compassion.  According to the article “Self-compassion is defined as the practice of treating oneself with kindness, care, and concern in the face of negative events.”  The article goes on to state that “self-criticism, a common consequence of self-care failure . . . can be seen as the opposite of self-compassion”.  Although this article focuses on the effects of self-compassion and its absence on diabetes patients in particular, it is clear that these health concerns can be more broadly generalized.  The article cites “A series of experimental studies suggest[ing] that quantifiable physiological and neurological processes underlie the experience of self-compassion.”  Furthermore, “consistent evidence suggests that self-compassion is related to physical and psychological health”.  As an example, “in a study [see citation below]* in patients with obesity and pain problems, self-compassion predicted lower negative affect, higher positive affect, more adaptive pain coping, higher pain self-efficacy, and lower pain catastrophizing.”

Not surprisingly, the opposite has also been shown to be true.  For example, ” the opposites of self-compassion, including self criticism, self-hate, self-judgment, and negative perfectionism, have been linked to greater psychological distress, including depression.”  The article is full of additional confirmations, citations and examples of the positive health effects, both physical and psychological, of self-compassion and the related negative consequences of its deficiency.

An article in the Washington Post that refers to this research also cites a book by Kristin Neff titled “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself”.  In it, the author speaks of the three elements of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness – the ability to be understanding with yourself rather than judgmental or harshly critical;
  • Common humanity – the recognition that none of us is perfect and all of us make mistakes, thus viewing ourselves as part of the human experience;
  • Mindfulness – the ability to pay attention to the present moment, neither dwelling on the past nor excessively worrying about the future.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may recognize these themes.  In fact, a very recent post discusses the benefits of self-care which are obviously closely related to self-compassion.  The articles referred to here also talk about the ways in which we sabotage ourselves.  For example, some of us may believe that being kind to ourselves needs to be secondary to taking care of others.  Think about that:  how can you give others something you are unwilling to give to yourself?  Furthermore, the consequences of denying ourselves the compassion that we wish to share with others can be pretty dire.   From the Washington Post article: “The opposite of self-compassion is emotional reactivity, isolation, self-judgment and unhealthy perfectionism, all of which have been linked to depression, stress and reduced quality of life.”

These ideas are echoed in an article in Health Psychology Open.  It states that “Substantial evidence supports the idea that self-compassion
can reduce perceived stress”.   Research findings show that  “people who have higher levels of self-compassion tend to handle stress better — they have less of a physical stress response when they are stuck in traffic, have an argument with their spouse or don’t get that job offer — and they spend less time reactivating stressful events by dwelling on them.”  Since chronic stress has direct effects on all aspects of our health, this is no small thing.  Additional research is also cited in this article indicating that people with higher levels of self-compassion are more likely to start and adhere to healthy behaviors which further enhances the benefits.  In other words, self-compassion promotes better health which contributes to better feelings about oneself which enables more self-compassion.  Conversely, negative self-care leads to poorer health which takes one’s self-image in a downhill spiral in the opposite direction.

So next time you’re tempted to run yourself down for any reason, it might be worth remembering that berating yourself may be more than just a temporary mood darkener.  It just might have more serious negative health ramifications that could be avoided with a little kindness.  Isn’t that simple step worth the effort?  Try noticing those negative thoughts.  Maybe you can remind yourself that “to err is human, to forgive, divine”.  Our world would be a safer and healthier place if we all practiced a little more kindness.  You can start that practice with yourself.  If you want to treat other people well and you want other people to treat you well, you can set an example by treating yourself well, too.  Your health care practitioners will applaud!


* Wren A, Somers T, Wright M, Goetz M, Leary M, Fras A. Self-compassion in patients with persistent musculoskeletal pain: relationship of self-compassion to adjustment to persistent pain. J Pain Symptom Manage 2012;43:759–770


Internalizing Kindness

In this season of giving, we are all thinking about what we can do for others. This is certainly noble and important. But we’ve also all heard the expression, “charity begins at home”. In particular, I’d like to focus on what Buddhists call “right speech”.

Traditionally, this concept refers to how we use language to avoid hurting others. According to the Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, right speech is defined as “refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech”.  An abbreviated version of this definition can also be as simple as “speaking truthfully and helpfully”.   In a recent article in Tricycle magazine titled “If the Buddha Were Called to Jury Duty” by Mark Epstein, the author writes, “Conventionally, right speech refers to how we speak to others, but I also believe it can help us pay attention to how we speak to ourselves.”  This got me to thinking about self-talk and how we treat ourselves.

It is safe to say that all of us without exception have some kind of internal dialogue going throughout each day.  For most of us it is, in fact, a pretty constant companion from the moment we wake until we fall back to sleep.  The most common reason people give for their perceived inability to meditate is that they can’t quiet their constantly chattering minds.  Those of you who have a meditation practice know that this is not really what it’s all about, but I’m going to leave that aside for now and focus instead on the internal dialogue itself.

Throughout this blog I have often pointed to the fact that we are our own harshest critics.  In fact, most of us would never treat other people the way we routinely treat ourselves.  We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards and then mercilessly berate ourselves when we fail to reach them.  The fact that they were unrealistic to begin with rarely enters the conversation.  We compare ourselves to others who we are certain are doing better and tell ourselves we are failures because we can’t measure up.  Or we will find some external source to blame.  In other words, we could have been perfect if it weren’t for ______ (fill in the culprit du jour).   Most of us are doing the best we can with what we have to work with in any given moment.  And none of us – without exception – is perfect.  But instead of acknowledging that fact and moving on, we will often poke and prod at the wound of our inability like a toothache and just keep reinforcing that negative perception.  The “should haves, could haves, would haves, ifs, ands. and buts” are rerun ad-nauseum in our mind’s eye until we feel incapable of doing anything right.

It is interesting to me that it seems almost like human nature to focus on the negative.  During my years of teaching and training, whenever evaluation requests are distributed to participants, 99% could come in saying “this was the best course I ever had in my life”.  But then 1 person says, “This was horrible.  A total waste of my time.”  Instead of focussing on the positive majority, trainers will inevitably worry about the 1 or 2 instances of negative feedback.  As the expression goes:   negative experiences cling like velcro while the positive ones repel like teflon.

Turning negative thinking into positive is a practice.   There are many articles that tout this concept.  For example positive self-talk is used by athletes to improve performance. According to Psychology Today:  “Positive self-talk is not self-deception.  .  . Rather, [it] is about recognizing the truth, in situations and in yourself.  .  .  One of the fundamental truths is that you will make mistakes.  To expect perfection in yourself or anyone else is unrealistic.”  The Mayo Clinic suggests that positive self-talk can help relieve stress.  This article presents some ideas to help you practice.  For example, if you are thinking “I can’t do this because I’ve never done it before”, you can change that to “this is an opportunity to learn something new”.  Or “this is too complicated” can change to “I’ll try it a different way.”  Or “I don’t have the resources” can become “maybe I can get creative – necessity is the mother of invention.”  Of course, there are more, but you get the picture.

So to bring this back to the season we’re in and to my favorite topic – mindful movement, if you find yourself lamenting lack of time, funds, patience, skill or any other perceived shortcoming, recognize this as an opportunity to practice turning the negative self-talk around.  Remind yourself that all of the generosity you want to express during the holidays needs to begin with your own self-compassion.  You can’t give what you haven’t got.  If you don’t take care of yourself first, you will be no good to anyone else.  Be kind to yourself and everyone around you will benefit.