Friday, April 29, 2011

Be good to yourself

Imagine you just made a big mistake on a project at work, creating an added burden for yourself and your co-workers, or that you accidentally said something dumb at an important meeting or on a first date. How would you react?

Many of us react to situations like these by chastising ourselves for our mistakes. We figuratively (and sometimes literally) beat ourselves up. In small doses, self-criticism can be helpful - it encourages us to take responsibility for our actions and motivates us to improve ourselves - but excessive self-criticism can be debilitating and self-defeating.

So what's the solution? Researchers have begun to examine the importance of self-compassion, which means treating yourself with kindness and understanding when you make a mistake or go through a difficult experience, just as you would treat another person you care about. Self-compassion is similar to self-esteem in some respects, but unlike self-esteem it's not about how you judge yourself but how you treat yourself. In other words, whether you think you're a great person or a not-so-great person in a given moment, you can still have compassion for yourself. For example, you might say to yourself, "You made a mistake, but it's okay - nobody's perfect. You'll try harder next time." 

Research suggests that this attitude is associated with many positive outcomes, such as increased resilience to stressful events (see this post for more details), greater psychological well-being, and a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although self-compassion might seem a bit too self-focused, research suggests that self-compassionate people are also more compassionate towards others, and an fMRI experiment showed that self-compassion activated similar brain regions to those involved in empathy towards others.

That's great, you might be thinking, but easier said than done. It's hard to change our chronic ways of relating to ourselves, just as it's hard to break patterns in dysfunctional relationships with other people. It's definitely not something that happens overnight. I first became interested in self-compassion when I learned about it in a meditation class in college, and since then it's been one of my primary research interests. Over the years I've come across many different approaches to building self-compassion - some based in empirical research, others more anecdotal. Here are some of my favorites.

1. Shift your perspective. It's often easier to give compassion to someone else than it is to give it to yourself. To trick yourself into treating yourself better, pretend that someone you care about is in your shoes instead - what would you say to them? Probably something kinder than what you would say to yourself. A variation of this exercise involves imagining what someone who cares about you would say to you, and adopting that perspective instead. These exercises have been used successfully in research on self-compassion.

2. Be a loving parent (to yourself). The way we treat ourselves is like the dynamic between a parent and child - just like a parent, we can be loving and supportive or we can be harsh and critical (or a combination of the two). Research on post-traumatic stress disorder suggests that constructing and visualizing a "perfect nurturer" - an imaginary person or spiritual being who is unconditionally loving and who has whatever characteristics you personally would hope for - can reduce shame and aid recovery. Or you can think about what qualities are most important to you in a friend and try to embody those qualities yourself. Elizabeth Gilbert illustrates this idea beautifully in a passage of Eat Pray Love

3. Engage your senses. You can put yourself in a self-compassionate mood by surrounding yourself with soothing images, smells, or music. For example, the photos of smiling family members and friends above your desk can remind you that you're loved when times are tough. Recent research shows that looking at photos of loved ones can actually reduce physical pain. The healing power of music has also been well-documented. I've always thought I should make a self-compassion playlist one of these days (including the Journey song that's the same as the post title), but I have yet to actually put it together. Suggestions are welcome!

4. Identify subtle forms of self-harm. Self-destructive behaviors aren't limited to deliberate self-injury - they could involve exercising to the point of injury, driving recklessly, drinking yourself into oblivion (knowing that you'll suffer the next day), neglecting to take care of your health, or even being more accident-prone than usual. These behaviors are often triggered by experiences of shame and other negative emotions that people want to escape. It can be helpful to pay attention to self-destructive responses and try to replace them with more constructive and loving behaviors, like treating yourself to a massage or talking to a comforting friend.

5. Guilt can be good. There is such a thing as too much self-compassion. Research suggests that self-forgiveness, which is similar to self-compassion but more relevant in the context of moral transgressions, is actually associated with reduced empathy for others' suffering, presumably because it's hard to forgive yourself when you see how much suffering you've caused and feel bad about yourself as a result. This troubling finding highlights the importance of combining self-compassion with constructive self-criticism and a healthy does of guilt, when appropriate. Ideally the two should not be mutually exclusive. A lack of remorse is a hallmark of antisocial personality disorder, and research suggests that guilt makes better leaders. A series of studies published this month show that self-compassion is more helpful for men who are high as opposed to low in conscientiousness, a personality trait that involves self-discipline and responsibility. Self-compassion appears to help these conscientious men engage in more relationship-maintenance behaviors like accommodation and constructive problem-solving, but for less conscientious men self-compassion might just be an excuse for complacency.

6. Don't tolerate bad treatment. A prerequisite for self-compassion is the belief that you, like all human beings, deserve to be treated with compassion. This applies to treatment from yourself as well as treatment from others. Survivors of abuse often report that they grew to believe that they somehow deserved the abuse, an attitude that can undermine attempts to seek help. Building self-compassion may help you more effectively protect yourself from destructive people. 

7. Mistakes can make you more likable. In a classic study, participants liked a person who spilled coffee on themselves better than they liked a person who didn't spill, as long as the spiller seemed otherwise competent. When people make mistakes, they seem more human and accessible, even endearing, whereas perfect people are intimidating. And when other people mess up it can make us less nervous about messing up ourselves. So if you make a blunder, you can think of it as an altruistic act that allows other people to also be imperfect. 

8.  Experiment. Regardless of what the research says, what matters is what works for you personally. I've had many conversations with people about whether self-compassion helps or hinders performance, especially in high-pressure environments like those that professional athletes and musicians face, and there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus. If you tell yourself, "I'm going to try my best, but it's not the end of the world if I make a mistake," will that make you more or less likely to mess up? One argument is that self-compassion can reduce the anxiety produced by avoidance goals such as "Whatever you do, don't mess up!" But for some people - or in some situations - self-compassion might provide dangerous room for error. Another approach is to save self-compassion for coping with failure after the fact - it could save you from getting caught in a vicious cycle of self-doubt. 

9. Try loving-kindness meditation. Even people who aren't into meditation seem to like this kind. It has a structure and it's similar to prayer. Loving-kindness meditation involves directing love and good wishes towards a series of people, starting with yourself and slowly extending outwards to include both loved ones, disliked people, and ultimately all living things. This form of meditation, rooted in ancient Buddhist practices, has been shown to increase happiness, improve relationships, and even restore physical health. From a Buddhist perspective, everyone and everything is interconnected, so compassion for the self and compassion for other are one and the same, you can't have one without the other. 

10. Read more about self-compassion. Here are some recommendations.

Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself Self and Identity, 2 (2), 85-101 DOI: 10.1080/15298860309032

Please feel free to add to this list and provide your own suggestions in the comments section.

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