Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How to survive a break-up: Give yourself a break

There is no shortage of advice on how to recover from a bad break-up: keep busy, don't contact your ex, go out with friends, make a break-up mix (preferably one that includes "I will survive"), etc. But according to a new study, something important is missing from this list.

In the study, led by David Sbarra and published in Psychological Science, participants who had recently separated from their spouses were recorded talking for four minutes in a stream-of-consciousness format about the separation. Then four judges rated the extent to which these statements included evidence of self-compassionwhich involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding rather than beating yourself up when things go wrong.

For example, one participant who received a high self-compassion score said the following “. . . it is just something that... happens these days, and I guess it is happening more often than not these days so... that is what the situation is. . . and you tell yourself you’re not the only person to experience this.” This statement expresses a sense of common humanity, or recognition that suffering is part of the human experience, which is considered a fundamental part of self-compassion. 

Another participant, who received a low self-compassion score, said: “I don’t know how I managed to do this. It was all my fault, I pushed him away for some reason. I needed him so much, still need him. . . . What did I do? I know I did it all wrong.” In contrast to the first statement, this one includes a high degree of self-judgment, with no evidence of self-kindness. It's painful to read, and also probably very painful to believe.   

At three-month intervals over the next nine months, participants completed measures assessing their psychological adjustment to the separation, such as how often they still think about it and how distressed it makes them feel. Results indicated that participants who were judged to be higher in self-compassion showed less distress at the beginning of the study and at the nine-month mark, while those low in self-compassion showed a greater increase in distress between six and nine months. The researchers controlled for a large number of other variables known to predict well-being and adjustment, such as 
self-esteem, attachment style, depression, and relationship length. Self-compassion was a unique predictor of adjustment, suggesting that it represents a critical part of the recovery process. 

Although self-compassion was assessed as a stable trait rather than trained, the researchers suggest that actively learning to be more self-compassionate might help people better cope with romantic break-ups. Increasing self-compassion is not an easy task, but some studies have shown that loving-kindness meditation and mindfulness-based interventions can help. Also see my previous post on this topic for more ideas.  


Sbarra, D., Smith, H., & Mehl, M. (2012). When Leaving Your Ex, Love Yourself: Observational Ratings of Self-Compassion Predict the Course of Emotional Recovery Following Marital Separation Psychological Science, 23 (3), 261-269 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429466


  1. Another great post! I wonder if the compassion of close friends and family during a break up can also positively affect one's self-compassion.

    I was just reading and sharing these refreshing (although perhaps complicated given her rocky history with Chris Brown?) reflections of Rihanna in May 2012 issue of Elle Magazine. Would this qualify as self-compassion?

    On finding that man:
    “I feel like it’s hard for everybody! I don’t think it has anything to do with being famous. There’s just a major drought out there. […] But I just need to find the person who balances me out, because then things like my schedule won’t matter. I’ve done it before, so I know I can do it again.”;slide=3;

    1. Thanks Emily! I'm not aware of any published research that directly addresses your first question, but research does suggest that receiving social support is important for coping, especially if it's "invisible" (that is, if it's delivered in a subtle way that maintains recipients' sense of competence and efficacy). So I would imagine that receiving others' compassion would be helpful as long as it doesn't feel too much like pity.

      As for the Rihanna quote, I do think the first part is an example of common humanity, which is part of self-compassion. The second part sounds more like confidence/optimism, which isn't technically part of self-compassion but probably overlaps!

  2. Hi,

    Surviving a breakup from a very good relation is not an easy task. But one should not loose his or her heart. Good time will come.

  3. hi,
    its really one of the hardest part in human life, it really shatters a person when you come to know that all these years you were just used by that person and you being selfless to a very selfish person who just played with a innocent feel of heart it just pushes you not to trust far as i know every person on this planet when they face such situation has to think that good times are ahead...these are the only option or d words that can make them bit comfortable to face the phase they'r going through...bottom line is this phase hurts, hurts a lot,as far as i know time has the power to heal each and every pain........ 1 request to all of them who are using or who used a person guys it really hurts dont play its not a material please never play with others feelings......