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Self compassion

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview of self compassion

Individuals who are self compassionate accept their flaws, perceive their failings as universal in all humans, and consider their limitations calmly (Neff, 2003a, 2003b). They do not, in contrast, feel contempt towards their shortcomings, feel isolated when they fail on some task, or reflect upon their errors and deficiencies frequently (Neff, 2003a, 2003b). Individuals who demonstrate self compassion, a concept developed and promoted by Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor at the University of Texas, show initiative.

Definition of self compassion

Self compassion entails three distinct, but related facets (Neff, 2003a, b). First, when individuals demonstrate self compassion, they accept and understand themselves, despite their perceived deficiencies, faults, or afflictions. Second, they recognize that pain and failure are inevitable, universal features of human experience. They do not feel a sense of isolation or alienation after failures. Third, they show a balanced perspective of themselves and their emotions--neither disregarding nor inflating adverse thoughts of feelings.

Consequences of self compassion


Self compassion is negatively related to anxiety, depression, rumination, and maladaptive forms of perfectionism (Neff, 2003a). Self compassion, however, is positively associated with optimism, life satisfaction, coupled with a feeling of social connection (Neff, 2003a& Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).

Health behaviors

In general, if people report self-compassion, they tend to be healthier. They are more likely to seek medical attention in response to health concerns. They are also more likely to engage in behaviors that improve health, even after controlling self-control.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Terry, Leary, Mehta, and Henderson (2013), participants who were afflicted with a medical problem completed a series of scales. First, they competed a measure of self-control that comprises only 12 items. Second, they described an existing medical problem and indicated the degree to which they follow the recommendations of their doctor. In addition, they completed scales that could explain why self-compassion affects health behaviors, including the degree to which they like to be kind to themselves (e.g., "I think I should do something nice for myself"), the extent to which they speak benevolently to themselves (e.g., "I remind myself that almost everyone has medical problems"), and the degree to which they like to be proactive about health (e.g., "I am very assertive when it comes to my physical health").

As predicted, self-compassion was positively associated with the extent to which participants followed the recommendations of their doctor and coped with the distress of their illness. This relationship was mediated by the degree to which participants are kind to themselves, speak benevolently to themselves, and behave proactively about their health. Other studies showed that self-compassion promotes healthy behaviors, such as seeking medical attention, even after controlling self-control or the motivation of individuals to achieve their goals. Finally, some studies show that people who are self-compassionate feel less distress in response to health complaints.

Conceivably, when people feel self-compassion, they are not as likely to feel ashamed of their frailties or distress. Consequently, rather than avoid thoughts about these predicaments, they are more willing to consider and resolve these problems. Similarly, they do not feel aggrieved, but recognize that such problems are part of the human experience, prompting a more proactive rather than helpless reaction.


Apart from benefits in mood, self compassion is also germane to academic contexts. Self compassion, for example, is positively related to intrinsic motivations to learn and adaptive coping strategies after academic failure (Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2005). Self compassion also tends to coincide with personal initiative--in which change themselves and their environment to ensure their life is more fulfilling-and curiosity, in which individuals pursue novel and challenging experiences (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007). Indeed, these relationships tend to persist even after personality is controlled (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).

Intrinsic motivation

Self compassion also elicits more desirable and productive motivations. To illustrate, as Magnus, Kowalski, and McHugh (2010) emphasized, some individuals experience an intrinsic motivation to exercise, perceiving this activity as enjoyable or engaging. They endorse items such as "I exercise because it's fun". According to self determination theory, this form of motivation often enhances engagement and persistence.

In contrast, some individuals experience motivations that are not as adaptive. They might be governed by extrinsic motivation to exercise. They exercise to please someone else or seek some reward, endorsing items like "I exercise because other people say I should". Similarly, they might experience introjected motivation. That is, their behavior might be dictated by feelings of guilt or pride, depending on their behavior, endorsing items like "I feel guilty when I don't exercise". Furthermore, consistent with the notion of performance orientation, some individuals exercise merely to demonstrate their capacity to outperform other people. These motivations can culminate in a sense of obligation or obsession with exercise, in which individuals feel irritable, depressed, or other negative emotions whenever they fail to exercise.

Magnus, Kowalski, and McHugh (2010) showed that self compassion was positively associated with intrinsic motivation to exercise. Furthermore, self compassion was negatively related to extrinsic motivation, introjected motivation, and performance orientation, sometimes called ego goal orientation.

Specifically, when individuals experience self compassion, they accept themselves. Hence, they do not feel the need to outperform anyone else to boost their sense of worth. They will, therefore, not be governed by the expectations of other people to the same extent. They can orient their attention to their underlying values, interests, and passions. Intrinsic motivation will override extrinsic motivation, introjected motivation, and a performance orientation.

Motivation to improve

As Breines and Chen (2012) showed, when individuals experience self-compassion, they do not become more complacent. Actually, they become especially motivated to change. In particular, because of their self-compassion, they accept, rather than deny, their faults. They become willing to contemplate, and therefore, address, these shortcomings. They attempt activities in which they may do not succeed, because they are not afraid of failure. Because they are willing to address their shortcomings, they develop the belief they can change, increasing their receptivity to feedback and advice.

Breines and Chen (2012) conducted four studies that verify these arguments. In the first study, participants were asked to reflect upon one of their weaknesses. Next, to induce self-compassion, some participants imagined they were talking to themselves about this weakness from a compassionate and understanding perspective. In one of the control conditions, to inflate self-esteem instead, participants imagined they were talking to themselves about this weakness by emphasizing their qualities and strengths. In another control condition, participants did not engage in either of these exercises. Finally, all participants were asked to write about this weakness, emphasizing the source of this shortfall as well as activities they have undertaken previously to redress this deficiency.

Relative to the other conditions, if self-compassion had been induced, participants were more likely to write about the prospect they can change. They included statements like "With hard work I know I can change it" rather than "It's just inborn, there's nothing I can do". This mindset, called an incremental theory, has been shown to facilitate improvement (see implicit theories of malleability).

The second study was similar, except participants reflected upon a time in which they behaved immorally and experienced guilt rather than recorded a weakness. In addition, after self-compassion or self-esteem had been induced, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they would like to address this transgression, completing questions such as "I wish I could go back and erase what happened," "I want to confess", and "I want to apologize". If self-compassion had been induced, participants were especially motivated to redress past indiscretions or transgressions.

The third study showed that self-compassion can even encourage people to practice more extensively on tasks. In this study, participants completed a difficult vocabulary task. They were granted time to practice before completing the test again. If self-compassion had been induced, participants dedicated more time to practice. The final study showed that self-compassion inspired people to reflect upon someone who had previously shared their weakness but had triumphed, called an upward comparison, rather than someone whose weaknesses were even more pronounced than were their own, called a downward compassion. Upward comparisons are more likely to inspire people, but not more likely to boost self-esteem.

Positive behaviors in relationships

Self-compassion has also been shown to foster positive, adaptive behavior in romantic relationships. That is, as Neff and Beretvas (2013) showed, if individuals report elevated levels of self-compassion, they are more likely, according to their partners, to be caring, affectionate, and gentle as well as discuss problems, respect other opinions, and encourage autonomy. They are less likely to control the other person, seem detached, or exhibit signs of aggression, such as shouting. Indeed, self-compassion is related to these positive behaviors even after controlling self-esteem and attachment style.

Several accounts could be proposed to explain these findings. First, self-compassion enhances resilience, enabling individuals to resolve and discuss challenging matters. Second, when individuals exhibit self-compassion, they shower themselves with kindness, care, and belonging. They may not be as reliant on other people to fulfill these needs and, therefore, encourage freedom and autonomy in relationships. Third, when people experience self-compassion, they accept fallibilities in themselves and, thus, in other individuals as well.

Antecedents of self compassion

They also tend to be less stable in personality& that is, they are not as conscientious, agreeable, or composed. In other words, organizations that demand perfection and excellence can compromise this self compassion, ultimately curbing the initiative and stability of employees.

Self compassion exercises

Shapira and Mongrain (2010) implemented and assessed a procedure that fosters self compassion. Specifically, each day, over a week, participants were asked to reflect upon an event that unfolded during the day that evoked negative emotions. Next, they were asked to write a short letter to themselves, in first person, comprising one paragraph, about this event. Specifically, they were asked to remember occasions in which they were kind and understanding to other people. They were asked to consider what they would say, in this state, to a friend who had experienced a similar event. Alternatively, they could think about the words that a friend would say to offer support.

To offer this support, they should express understanding or empathy towards this distress. They could write "I feel sad that you feel distressed". They could also indicate they feel the distress is understandable, with words like "It is natural to feel upset in this situation". Finally, they would offer soothing words to offer encouragement.

In the control condition, each day, over the week, participants were asked to write about an early memory of their life. They described the activities they were undertaking, the feelings they were experiencing, and the people with whom they were interacting, if they could remember.

One week, one month, three months, and six months after this intervention, participants completed a series of measures that assessed their wellbeing. These measured included scales that gauge depression and happiness. Furthermore, they completed a questionnaire of self criticism, neediness, and connectedness.

Relative to the control condition, self compassion increased happiness over the next six months. This intervention diminished depression over the next three months. Connectedness partly mediated these benefits of self compassion.

Breines and Chen (2012a) also developed similar exercises to foster self-compassion. For example, in this study, participants were instructed to reflect upon a weakness, transgression, or failure. To induce self-compassion, participants imagined they were talking to themselves about this weakness from a compassionate and understanding perspective. In one study, they were also encouraged to adopt a caring and concerned, rather than critical, approach. In another study, they were also asked to recognize that such failure is common and they should not be too hard on themselves. After self-compassion had been induced, participants were more likely to feel inspired to improve themselves.

Helping other people

After individuals help someone, or remember a time in which they helped someone, they are more inclined to feel experience self-compassion (Breines & Chen, 2012b). Presumably, these helpful behaviors or memories prime schemas that shape how individuals support themselves. In particular, the tendency of individuals to support another person is extended to themselves.

For example, in one study, conducted by Breines and Chen (2012b), participants first wrote about a recent event in which they experienced a feeling of failure, rejection, or humiliation--an event in which self-compassion is most important. Next, they were asked to recall a time in which they either helped a friend or experienced fun with a friend. Finally, they completed a measure that gauges the extent to which they feel self-compassion towards this failure or humiliation. Compared to participants who imagined a time in which they experienced fun with a friend, participants who imagined a time in which they helped a friend were more likely to report self-compassion. A subsequent study showed that actually writing advice to help someone also enhanced self-compassion. These findings were not mediated by changes in affect or self-esteem.


Some variants of yoga have been shown to foster self-compassion as well as mindfulness. Gard, Brach, Holzel, Noggle, Conboy, and Lazar (2012) verified the benefits of a specific program of yoga--Kripalu yoga--on self-compassion. The program spans four months. This residual program is targeted at individuals aged between 18 and 25. Each day, the students engage in three to five hours of practice. The practice entails postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. In addition, participants were engaged in three to five hours of tutorials, in which they learnt about how to integrate yoga with everyday life as well as other life skills.

One of the key features of this yoga program was the concept of witness consciousness. Witness consciousness, like mindfulness, refers to the capacity of individuals to observe their environment and their experience without judgment or reactivity. Five skills facilitate witness consciousness. Specifically, individuals are encouraged to orient their attention to the sensation of breath, to orient their attention to other momentary sensations, feelings, and thoughts, to learn how to accept, rather than judge, these experiences, and to learn how to relax. Compassion is also a central feature of this program.

Relative to a matched control group, participants who engaged in this program exhibited greater self-compassion, as gauged by all facets besides common humanity Indeed, self-compassion partly mediated the observed association between yoga and reduced stress. Arguably, the instruction to accept their physical attributes, rather cultivate the perfect posture, may have enhanced self-compassion. As an aside, mindfulness mediated the association between yoga and quality of life.

Practical implications

To develop a sense of balance, individuals could reflect upon some of their flaws or deficiencies. They should then concede this flaw to another person, perhaps offering examples that show the deficiency is not extreme, but nevertheless is a trait they would like to modify. In other words, they need to demonstrate a balanced perspective--accepting but neither trivializing nor exaggerating their faults.

In addition, when individuals experience distress, they could breathe deeply for a few minutes, recognizing but not suppressing or exaggerating their pain or unease. They should strive to perceive the situation clearly with a sense of clarity rather than panic or denial.

Measure of self compassion

The most established measure of self compassion, formulated by Ness (2003a), comprises six subscales. In particular, the measure includes one positive subscale and one negative subscale for each of three themes that underpin self compassion.

The subscales include self-kindness (e.g., "When I'm going through a very hard time, I give myself the caring and tenderness I need"), self-judgment (e. g., "When I see aspects of myself that I don't like, I get down on myself"), common humanity (e.g., "When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people."), isolation (e.g., "When I fail at something that's important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure"), mindfulness (e.g., "When something upsets me I try to keep my emotions in balance."), and over-identification (e.g., "When I'm feeling down I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that's wrong"). The psychometric properties of this scale are promising (see Neff, 2003a).

Related measures and concepts

Self compassion is distinct from self esteem, despite some superficial and empirical overlap. When individuals demonstrate self compassion, they are less inclined to exhibit anger, ruminate over problems, or experience striking variations in feelings of worth-even after self esteem is controlled (for a summary, see Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007). In addition, when self compassion is elevated, individuals are less sensitive to threats, such as criticisms, even when self esteem is controlled (Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2007).

Self forgiveness

Many studies have examined the benefits of forgiveness in many, but do not all, circumstances (Luchies, Finkel, McNulty, & Kumashiro, 2010;; see also forgiveness). Other studies have also shown that self forgiveness--the extent to which individuals accept their own errors or shortfalls--also improves wellbeing and behavior in many contexts. Self forgiveness seems to overlap with self compassion and perhaps acceptance (see ACT therapy).

Wohl, Pychyl, and Bennett (2010), for example, showed that self forgiveness, in the aftermath of procrastination, can reduce the likelihood of subsequent procrastination. Specifically, participants completed a questionnaire that assess self procrastination, with questions like "I dislike myself for procrastinating". Subsequent questionnaires assessed their mood and procrastination in the future. Forgiveness at one time predicted diminished levels of negative affect and procrastination later.

According to Wohl, Pychyl, and Bennett (2010), many individuals procrastinate because they want to evade the distress and discomfort that tedious activities can evoke. That is, they strive to prevent or minimize negative states. If individuals procrastinate on one task, but do not accept this behavior in themselves, other tedious activities may evoke negative emotions. That is, these tasks will elicit memories of previous procrastination, inducing guilt or regret. To avert these emotions, individuals might strive to shun, rather than consider, tedious activities. This avoidance can amplify procrastination.

Exline, Root, Yadavalli, Martin, and Fisher (2011) developed a script or recording to which participants could listen to foster self forgiveness. Specifically, participants first imagine, as vividly as possible, a situation in which they offended or hurt someone else. They concentrate on their own role in this event, admitting confidently they were, at least partly, responsible. Second, they consider actions they have or could undertaken partly to redress this offence. Finally, they learn how to recognize they can sometimes act inappropriately while nevertheless feeling a sense of compassion and acceptance towards themselves. That is, they attempt to balance the need to recognize their behavior was inappropriate while relinquishing unnecessary guilt or shame. They could envisage themselves switching off a voice in their head that castigates their behavior, freeing themselves from chains of self punishment, or some other image. Participants who were exposed to this script were more likely to self forgive over the next two weeks.

Pseudo self-forgiveness

Nevertheless, many researchers differentiate two variants of self-forgiveness: genuine and pseudo (for a review, see Wenzel, Woodyatt, & Hedrick, 2012). According to Wenzel, Woodyatt, and Hedrick (2012), when people engage in genuine self-forgiveness, they first assume responsibility for their wrongdoing--but then accept themselves. In particular, assuming responsibility implies that individuals cherish the value they violated. Consequently, as they assume responsibility, they tend to reaffirm their values. Consequently, they feel committed to change in the future and thus accept themselves. This genuine self-forgiveness inspires people to redress their shortcomings.

In contrast, when people engage in pseudo self-forgiveness, they deflect responsibility for their wrongdoing, blaming other individuals or complications. Although their perception of themselves might be restored and favorable, they are not as inclined to improve or change. Unfortunately, many existing measures of self-forgiveness, at least partly, gauge pseudo self-forgiveness-and, therefore, correlate with insensitivity and narcissism rather than guilt or empathy (e.g., Tangney, Boone, & Dearing, 2005).

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Wenzel, Woodyatt, and Hedrick (2012), participants were asked to complete a questionnaire days after breaching one of their values, such as violating confidentiality. The questionnaire gauged the degree to which the participants accept responsibility (e.g., "I am not really to blame for this"& reverse-coded) and feel they had affirmed their values (e.g., "This person and I share an understanding about what is important"), coupled with measures of self-forgiveness and self-esteem. In general, when people accepted responsibility, their levels of self-esteem or self-forgiveness decreased. Yet, if they felt they had affirmed their values, this acceptance of responsibility did not impair self-esteem or self-forgiveness, presumably reflecting genuine self-forgiveness. Another study showed that confessions tended to promote this affirmation of values.

Woodyatt and Wenzel (2013) examined one of the determinants of pseudo self-forgiveness: a threat to their need to belong. That is, when individuals do not feel their need to belong is fulfilled, they are more likely to exhibit pseudo self-forgiveness. They are more likely to minimize the harm their transgressions may have evoked, diminishing guilt, shame, and the motivation to redress the transgression.

Specifically, individuals experience a strong need to be accepted in communities or by friends. When this need is threatened, people experience intense negative emotions. To override these negative emotions, they often bias their assumptions to convince themselves they do actually belong. For example, they may trivialize or dismiss events that could impede their need to belong and, therefore, could minimize their transgressions, manifesting as pseudo self-forgiveness.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Woodyatt and Wenzel (2013), participants completed a questionnaire and received contrived feedback, implying they will either feel alone or experience strong relationships in the future. Next, they read a scenario in which they imagined offending their partner. Finally, they indicated the degree to which they felt their behaviour was harmful, the extent to which they assumed responsibility, and the level of regret and shame they felt. If participants were informed they may be alone in the future, they tended to trivialize their offence. They did not feel they hurt the other person& they also felt minimal regret and shame. Finally, they were not as willing to redress the transgression.

Determinants of self-forgiveness: Affirming personal values that were threatened by an offence

When people offend someone else, they often feel they have violated a personal value. To illustrate, if they mock another person, they may feel they have violated their desire to be kind. Memories of times in which they fulfilled this value, rather than other values, tends to foster self-forgiveness.

This possibility was verified by Woodyatt and Wenzel (2014). In one study, participants described a time in which they committed an offence, such as insulted a friend. Next, half the participants identified a value this offence had breached and a time they had acted in accordance with this value. In addition, half the participants also wrote about a time in which they experienced a sense of belonging and acceptance. Finally, immediately after writing one or both essays as well as a week later, participants completed a series of scales that gauge self-forgiveness, trust in themselves, shame, and the desire to reconcile. If participants had affirmed the value that was breached, they subsequently experienced greater self-forgiveness and less shame& also, a week later, they experienced more trust in themselves and a desire to reconcile. Whether or not they affirmed their value to belong did not affect these states.

Presumably, self-forgiveness at one time--induced by affirming moral values--diminishes the likelihood that people will act defensively. They accept their faults. Therefore, self-forgiveness can enable people to reconcile later.

Pain and guilt

To facilitate self forgiveness, individuals sometimes apply strategies that alleviate guilt. For example, as Bastian, Jetten, and Fasoli (2010) showed, when individuals deliberately inflict pain upon themselves, feelings of guilt tend to dissipate.

In one study, for example, some participants wrote about a time in which they behaved unethically by excluding another person. Next, participants were encouraged to insert their hand in icy water for as long as possible, while performing another task concurrently. Finally, they answered questions that assess the extent to which they experienced pain and the degree to which they felt guilty about this unethical act, both before and after inserting their hand in water.

The results were striking. If participants had inserted their hand in icy water, their feelings of guilt about their unethical behaviour diminished. That is, individuals perceive this pain as a form of punishment that restores justice and thus alleviates guilt (Bastian, Jetten, & Fasoli, 2010).

This association between pain and the alleviation of guilt most likely evolves from several sources. First, this association evolves during childhood when children are sometimes smacked in response to inappropriate behaviour. Over time, they anticipate physical pain after violating standards. Pain will thus curb this anticipation. Furthermore, when individuals subject themselves to pain, they feel they have communicated their regret to other people: They feel they may be accepted instead of excluded or punished in the future, also curbing their apprehension. Finally, after individuals tolerate pain, they might feel more resilient, increasing positive attitudes towards themselves and overriding doubts (for a discussion, see Bastian, Jetten, & Fasoli, 2010).

Guilt versus shame

Self-compassion does not entail either guilt or shame. Yet, studies indicate that guilt, but not shame, can be quite beneficial.

Guilt and shame differ from each other. Guilt reflects the negative emotions that individuals feel because of a specific mnoral transgression, such as lying to a friend. This emotion motivates individuals to redress this act. Shame, in contrast, reflects the negative emotions that individuals feel because they perceive themselves as generally immoral. This emotion is not associated with a particular transgression and, therefore, does not compel individuals to redress this act.

A variety of procedures can be used to assess guilt proneness, shame proneness, or both, such as the test of self-conscious affect (Tangney & Dearing, 2002;; see also Schaumberg & Flynn, 2012) and the guilt and shame proneness scale (Cohen et al., 2011). To complete the test of self-conscious affect or TOSCA, participants read a set of scenarios, such as "You are driving down the road, and you hit a small animal." Next, two possible responses are presented, epitomizing feelings of guilt and shame respectively, such as "You'd feel bad you hadn't been more alert driving down the road" and "You would think, 'I'm terrible'". Participants indicate the likelihood they would experience these reactions on a five point scale.

The guilt and shame proneness scale comprises four subscales, two corresponding to guilt and two corresponding to shame. The first subscale corresponding to guilt reflects the negative emotions that individuals feel when they transgress. To assess this scale, participants read a scenario including "You lie to people, but they never find out about it", followed by the question "What is the likelihood that you would feel terrible about the lies you told?" The second subscale corresponding to guilt reflects the degree to which individuals attempt to repair or redress these transgressions, represented by scenarios such as "You reveal a friend's secret, though your friend never finds out" and questions such as "What is the likelihood that your failure to keep the secret would lead you to exert extra effort to keep secrets in the future?"

In general, proneness to guilt increases the extent to which individuals feel responsible for problems or injustices. In addition, proneness to guilt also correlates with empathy and charitable behavior (for a review, see Schaumberg & Flynn, 2012). Because people who feel guilty like to assume responsibility and act altruistically, guilt proneness is likely to enhance leadership effectiveness.

Schaumberg and Flynn (2012) showed that guilt proneness does indeed facilitate leadership. For example, in one study, MBA students completed the TOSCA to gauge their guilt and shame proneness. In addition, their leadership behavior at work was measured in the context of a 360 degree assessment. Guilt proneness was indeed positively associated with leadership effectiveness, even after controlling personality, as gauged by the five factor model. Furthermore, this relationship between guilt proneness and leadership was mediated by a sense of responsibility for other people, measured by items such as I feel personally accountable if my group is not doing well". Another study showed that guilt proneness, especially negative emotions in response to past transgressions, corresponded to leadership emergence in teams that were assigned to solve a problem.


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