(photography: Elena Sarinena)
Being kind to yourself is a surefire way to improve your mental health and reach your goals, a growing body of work suggests. Now research has revealed an easy way to boost this self-compassion—by showing kindness to others.
Self-compassion is distinct from self-esteem, a trait that can shade into narcissism. Nor should it be confused with self-pity or self-indulgence. “Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness and care you'd treat a friend,” says Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. People who are self-compassionate avoid harsh cri-tiques or negative generalizations of themselves, and they see their troubles as part of the human condition.
Research is showing that this gentle, nonjudgmental approach helps individuals bounce back even after major crises. For example, in a study in press at Psychological Science, scientists found that newly divorced people who spoke compassionately toward themselves adjusted significantly better in the following 10 months than those who spoke more harshly, with self-compassion outperforming self-esteem and even optimism as a predictor of good coping.
Contrary to what many people think, treating yourself kindly is also good for achieving your goals. “People believe that self-criticism helps to motivate them,” Neff says. Those low in self-compassion think that unless they are hard on themselves, they will not amount to much—but research reveals that being kind to yourself does not lower your standards. “With self-compassion, you reach just as high, but if you don't reach your goals it's okay because your sense of self-worth isn't contingent on success,” she explains.
All of that is good news for the naturally self-compassionate, but what about the half of the population who tend to beat themselves up? Luckily, mounting research shows that you can cultivate your self-compassion through meditation and even simpler techniques. For example, pressing your hand against your heart or hiding this gesture in “a surreptitious hug” can give your self-compassion a momentary boost, Neff says.
A recent study at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests an even more surprising way to heighten self-compassion: acting compassionately toward others. In a presentation in January at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, researchers Juliana Breines and Serena Chen described a set of experiments in which they asked one group of participants to give support to another person, such as writing down suggestions to make a friend feel better after causing a fender bender. Those in the support-giving condition went on to rate themselves higher in compassion for themselves than did participants who had been asked either to recall a fun time with a friend or to merely read about the suffering of others.
“There was a unique benefit to giving support—the benefit wasn't just from feeling connected or realizing that others had problems, too,” explains Breines, a doctoral candidate in psychology and the study's lead author. During tough times, people naturally tend to focus on themselves and find it difficult to support others, she says. “But actually, as many people intuitively discover, taking the opportunity to support other people can make you feel better about what you're going through.”