Misconceptions about self-compassion's consequences may lead people to avoid it.

There are many reasons why some people are low in self-compassion, or treating oneself with kindness during hard times. In many cases, self-compassion doesn’t come naturally because people don’t have a lot of experience with it. But in other cases, reluctance to be self-compassionate reflects an active choice, not a lack of skill. Findings from a recent study suggest that misconceptions about the motivational and social consequences of self-compassion might impact people’s willingness to practice it. In the study, a group of college student participants filled out the Self-Compassion Scale, which includes statements like, “I try to be loving toward myself when I’m feeling emotional pain.” This scale was used to determine whether participants were high or low in self-compassion.

Juliana Breines, Ph.D.,Juliana Breines, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island. She received her Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley and her B.A. from the University of Michigan. Her research examines how social experiences shape the way people treat themselves, and how positive and negative forms of self-treatment (e.g., self-compassion, self-criticism) impact health and well-being. Dr. Breines' research has been published in a number of peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

Next, participants were asked to visualize two hypothetical scenarios, one in which they responded to negative events in their lives with self-compassion and the other in which they responded with self-criticism. The self-compassion scenario involved imagining treating oneself in a warm and caring way, telling oneself that setbacks are a part of life, and striving to forgive oneself and move on. The self-criticism scenario involved imagining treating oneself in a cold and critical way, telling oneself that setbacks can be avoided, and dwelling on failures and mistakes.

After reading each scenario, participants indicated how they would evaluate themselves as a result of responding in a self-compassionate or self-critical way. For example, they rated the extent to which they would see themselves as lazy or industrious, as a success or a failure, arrogant or modest, careful or careless, and happy or unhappy.

Consistent with the researchers’ hypotheses, results showed that participants’ self-evaluations in each scenario depended in part on whether they scored high or low in trait self-compassion. Although most participants believed that self-compassion would make them feel happier, those who were lower in self-compassion were more concerned that self-compassion would lead them to see themselves as lazy, arrogant, careless, or as a failure. In other words, some people may be low in self-compassion because they don’t believe self-compassion is the best strategy for motivating themselves to succeed, despite its emotional benefits.

Were these participants correct in their views of self-compassion?

Research has generally found that self-compassion is an effective strategy for increasing self-improvement motivation. In several studies, participants exposed to brief self-compassion inductions were more likely to see a personal weaknesses as changeable, more motivated to make amends for a transgression, and more willing to take responsibility for their role in negative events. Self-compassionate people also tend to be less afraid of failure and more interested in learning from mistakes.

There is also evidence, however, that the effectiveness of self-compassion depends on the way it’s practiced. For example, one series of studies found that self-compassionate men were more motivated to correct mistakes they had made in their romantic relationships, but only if they were also high in conscientiousness, a personality trait characterized by carefulness and self-discipline. For men low in conscientiousness, self-compassion was unhelpful, perhaps because they used it as a crutch rather than a source of motivation. Similarly, research on self-forgiveness suggests that it’s most effective when combined with empathy and responsibility-taking.

Those who are skeptical of self-compassion might have good reason to be. To some degree, self-criticism and the negative emotions that go along with it can be motivating; we’re less likely to want to repeat a behavior that makes us feel bad about ourselves. But often our self-criticism is so crushing or extreme that it has the opposite effect, leading us to feel hopeless about our potential for positive change. In these cases, self-compassion is especially useful because it can take the harsh edge off of self-criticism, making it more realistic and constructive. Self-compassion can also help us see setbacks as a normal part of the process of change so we’re less likely to prematurely give up on something.

If you’re wary of self-compassion, consider how it might complement constructive self-criticism rather than replacing it. Self-compassionate people still recognize when they make mistakes, and still feel bad about them, but they’re less likely to conclude that they are “bad people” or to be so racked with shame that they can’t move forward. The paradox of self-compassion is that by accepting our limitations, we’re often more able to overcome them.