Do You Give Yourself The Kindness You Give To Others?
Psychologist Christina Chwyl finds self-compassion to be much more motivating than self-criticism.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 8, 2022
A new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that many of us hold a number of misconceptions about self-compassion. The research argues that self-compassion is the opposite of self-indulgence: it is a "motivational supercharger."
I recently spoke to psychologist Christine Chwyl of Drexel University to understand how we can bring more self-compassion into our own lives. Here's a summary of our conversation.
What inspired you to investigate the topic of self-compassion?
When I was an undergraduate student, I worked as a research assistant in a social neuroscience laboratory that studied empathy. During this time, I witnessed many people in my own life showing incredible empathy for others, yet not themselves.
I began to wonder why people can simultaneously be so kind to others, yet at times cruel to themselves. This observation led to my fascination with self-compassion, which fundamentally entails extending to ourselves the same kindness and care that we often extend to loved ones.
Researchers break self-compassion down into a few components:
- Noticing when we are in pain (without either detaching from or getting "caught up" in our feelings)
- Realizing that experiencing distress or making mistakes is part of being human (as opposed to feeling isolated by these experiences)
- Offering ourselves kindness (as opposed to being harshly self-critical)
The more I learned about self-compassion, the more I was sold on its benefits. Hundreds of studies document the benefits of self-compassion on wide-ranging outcomes, including well-being, physical health, and self-improvement.
And yet, from my own experiences, and from working with patients as a clinical psychologist in training, I noticed how very difficult it can be to practice self-compassion.
How did you study this topic and what did you find in your research?
In our research, my colleagues, Patricia Chen and Jamil Zaki, and I set out to investigate the beliefs that may prevent people from developing self-compassion. Misconceptions about self-compassion abound.
Many of us grow up learning that we need harsh self-criticism to light a fire under us. We may come to believe that self-compassion is self-indulgent, lazy, selfish, or will fundamentally undermine our motivation.
My colleagues and I created a questionnaire to capture these negative beliefs about self-compassion. We then explored how these beliefs affected peoples' practice of self-compassion, and coping responses to setbacks (e.g., getting a bad grade on a test).
Our results revealed that peoples' beliefs about self-compassion had a powerful effect on their behavior.
As we might expect, people who had a more favorable view of self-compassion were more likely to practice self-compassion. Importantly, these individuals were also significantly more likely to cope in healthy, adaptive ways, and to seek self-improvement following setbacks.
Our research echoes what studies have found time and time again — self-compassion not only feels better than harsh self-criticism, but it works better too, helping us rise to life's inevitable challenges.
You state that people who have certain greater self-compassion are able to more effectively respond to difficult times. Could you explain why this is the case?
Kristin Neff, a leading self-compassion researcher, offers a useful analogy for understanding why self-compassion is so effective.
Imagine a child comes home from school with a failing math grade on a midterm exam. A harshly self-critical parent may chastise the child for this poor grade, call the child stupid, and tell them to get their act together.
A compassionate parent may validate how upsetting this is for the child, let them know that other kids struggle with math, too, and support the child in identifying strategies to get back on track, such as effective studying habits, or a tutor.
It's clear from this example which approach would lead a child to pursue math long-term. Sure, the child treated critically may study harder for a short while, but they are unlikely to be motivated to continue pursuing math courses, may hide future grades from their parents, and may feel embarrassed about their abilities moving forward.
In much the same way, when we treat ourselves with self-compassion, we have the space to think calmly and rationally about the situation at hand and respond to it in healthy ways.
Indeed, researchers have found that self-compassion helps people fight procrastination, make amends following transgressions, and work harder following setbacks. Far from letting ourselves off the hook, self-compassion is a motivational supercharger.
What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone who feels they lack self-compassion?
Our research shows that the beliefs that we have about self-compassion have a powerful effect on our behaviors.
A positive mindset about self-compassion can pave the way to self-compassionate action. We found that changing beliefs about self-compassion alone (without any specific self-compassion training) led people to treat themselves with greater self-compassion.
Therefore, it is important to take stock of our beliefs and attitudes about self-compassion, and to begin gently challenging any negative beliefs that we may possess.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who possess negatively held beliefs and seek to overcome them, and develop greater self-compassion?
First, I want to reassure readers that it is completely normal to possess negative beliefs about self-compassion and to struggle with developing self-compassion.
Many of us grow up learning how to be kind towards others, yet not necessarily to ourselves. For some people, self-compassion may sound like the bee's knees. Yet for others, self-compassion may be met with skepticism or even stir up fear.
I encourage readers to try their best to be self-compassionate towards any negative beliefs that they may possess!
The first step to developing greater self-compassion is to simply notice our reactions, beliefs, and attitudes. Get curious about your relationship with self-compassion, and notice whatever shows up for you, without judgment. Awareness is a huge stride towards cultivating greater self-compassion.
Once you have examined your beliefs about self-compassion, you may want to begin the journey of developing greater self-compassion. Know that self-compassion is like a muscle — the more we practice it, the stronger it gets. Just like exercise, self-compassion can at first feel difficult or even painful for some. And, just like exercise, it can be difficult to carve out the time for ourselves to practice self-compassion, even though the benefits are well worth it!
However, with practice, treating ourselves with self-compassion becomes easier and more natural.
There are wonderful online resources to develop greater self-compassion, such as online classes through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, free exercises at self-compassion.org, and even evidence-based apps.
Exploring self-compassion with the support of a therapist can be a fantastic option. Going back to the exercise metaphor, all of us could benefit from the expertise, support, and encouragement of a coach from time to time.
Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this go in the future?
Now that I work in the health psychology area, I am curious to further extend self-compassion research to the study of health behavior change.
How can we harness self-compassion to help people persist following setbacks, such as falling off their healthy eating or exercise goals, or medication regime?
I would also love to see further applied work on self-compassion in community settings, such as schools and workplaces.