Research-based suggestions for increasing your self-compassion.
By Will Sutherland
In the previous article on Self Compassion, I wrote about the mounting scientific support for self-compassion as a catalyst in psychotherapy and recovery. I also outlined the various evolutionary and attachment based theories that underpin this effect. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until I finished the last article that I finally conceded: ‘Fine! I’ll start being self-compassionate!’. I naturally skew towards the tough love camp. Evidently, self-compassion was not the most appealing practice for me. However, I have reluctantly introduced some self-compassion practices. And to my delight, these practices and concepts have become a wonderful addition to my existing mental health practices. That’s the good part; compassion is a skill that can be learned4. There is a growing body of research identifying the functional components of self-compassion. In a pioneering study on self-compassion, Kristin D. Neff presents three components that make up self-compassion: self-kindness, connection and mindful self-regulation13.
Self-kindness is reacting to your own failures with the same grace and gentleness that you would to a friend5. Additionally, it involves challenging self-critical thoughts. Those with eating disorders are typically low on self-kindness and experience very high levels of shame and self-criticism12. A twelve-week Compassion Focused group program for those with eating disorders, significantly reduced reports of shame, self-criticism and pathological-eating9. The study also significantly reduced another barrier to self-compassion; fear of compassion12. Fear of compassion is described as both: the belief that you’re not worthy of compassion and the fear that self-compassion will negatively affect how you are perceived by others9. The maladaptive view that self-criticism is necessary and helpful, is not reserved for those with eating disorders. Many athletes believe that too much self-compassion may encourage mediocre performance6. However, self-compassion not self-criticism increases your ability to through navigate the natural failures and successes in sport. Self-compassion is also likely to increase behavioral reactions in sport and reduce maladaptive reactions to failure7.
The second component of self-compassion is connection to your common humanity13. This links back to the Buddhist notion that suffering is a universal part of human experience, and not an individual’s fault1. Also linked to attachment theory, connection to a common humanity is modeled after a caregivers unconditional acceptance4. This connection helps us to identify that all humans will experience suffering and help us to meet that suffering with compassion not shame. It also produces feelings of social connectedness and the related hormones that our brains, like oxytocin3. This may explain why a compassion focused intervention for those with Psychosis significantly reduced feelings of social marginilization8. Similarly, Compassion Focused Therapy resulted in significant reductions in depressive symptoms in many different groups11. One theory is that self-compassion may negate the Depressive Attributional Style14. Which involves attributing personal success to external factors and failures to your own fault. Thus viewing themselves as a disconnected and solely responsible failure; or, as the common recovery expression puts it, feeling like ‘a piece of shit in the centre of the Universe15. The opposite of connection to common humanity.
The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness and self-regulation13. In this context, a practice of mindfulness helps us to self-regulate emotional and cognitive distress. This distress is theorised to be, in part, due to the evolutionary development of the human brain3. The ability to experience momentary distress whilst diffusing/detaching ourselves from them, is an invaluable tool in life and managing psychological disorders6, 8, 9. A helpful reminder used in recovery and CBT is thoughts and feelings aren’t facts. Emotional self-regulation and mindfulness work by engaging our para-sympathetic nervous system, which calms our autonomic responses like heart rate and cortisol release4. Especially those with substance abuse issues, emotional-regulation techniques are incredibly effective in recovery2. In fact mindfulness and emotional regulation are key components taught in both Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous2. Another common reminder used in Alcoholics Anonymous is the acronym HALT16. Before making a decision or launching into an action, addicts are encouraged to ask, ‘am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?’. Considering these basic human needs and recognising their influence over our perceptions can help to avoid jeopardising recovery2.
Several recent meta-analyses3, 4, 5 have provided clinical support for Buddhism’s long-held belief in the importance of self-compassion compassion1. These studies highlight the efficacy and ease of implementing self-compassion for different populations and disorders8, 9, 10, 11. Self-compassion has theoretical support in evolutionary and attachment theory, linking its significance to our biological and social human needs3, 13. Although compassion is commonly modeled to us by our caregivers it is a learnable skill3. Through practicing self-kindness, connection and mindful self-regulation, self-compassion can help us navigate the natural highs and lows of life13. Engaging in mental health treatment can be a challenging and complicated endeavor, especially with the addition of self-criticism and shame. Self-compassion is an invaluable partner in any mental health or recovery journey, for all of us Unicycle-riding-bears.
Below are some extra resources for increasing self-compassion as well as some useful phone lines for especially difficult times.
Loving Kindness and Compassion meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sz7cpV7ERsM
4 ways to boost self-compassion, Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mental-health/4-ways-to-boost-your-self-compassion
HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?): https://americanaddictioncenters.org/blog/common-stressors-recovery
13 11 14 – Lifeline Crisis Support Line
1300 22 4636 – Beyond Blue
1. Hofmann SG, Grossman P, Hinton DE. Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: potential for psychological interventions. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011 Nov;31(7):1126-32. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.07.003. Epub 2011 Jul 26. PMID: 21840289; PMCID: PMC3176989.
2. Chen, Gila. (2019). The Role of Self-Compassion in Recovery from Substance Use Disorders. OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine. 4. 10.21926/obm.icm.1902026.
3. Gilbert, P. (2014), The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. Br J Clin Psychol, 53:641. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjc.12043
4. Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A. et al. Self-Compassion Interventions and Psychosocial Outcomes: a Meta-Analysis of RCTs. Mindfulness 10, 1455–1473 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6
5. Inwood E, Ferrari M. Mechanisms of Change in the Relationship between Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation, and Mental Health: A Systematic Review. Appl Psychol Health Well Being. 2018 Jul;10(2):215-235. doi: 10.1111/aphw.12127. Epub 2018 Apr 19. PMID: 29673093.
6. Lindsay M. Sutherland, Kent C. Kowalski, Leah J. Ferguson, Catherine M. Sabiston, Whitney A. Sedgwick & Peter R.E. Crocker (2014) Narratives of young women athletes’ experiences of emotional pain and self-compassion, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 6:4, 499-516, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2014.888587
7. Nathan A. Reis, Kent C. Kowalski, Amber D. Mosewich & Leah J. Ferguson (2022) ‘That’s how I am dealing with it – that is dealing with it’: exploring men athletes’ self-compassion through the lens of masculinity, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 14:2, 245-267, DOI: 10.1080/2159676X.2021.1920455
8. Braehler C, Gumley A, Harper J, Wallace S, Norrie J, Gilbert P. Exploring change processes in compassion focused therapy in psychosis: results of a feasibility randomized controlled trial. Br J Clin Psychol. 2013 Jun;52(2):199-214. doi: 10.1111/bjc.12009. Epub 2012 Oct 24. PMID: 24215148.
9. Kelly AC, Wisniewski L, Martin-Wagar C, Hoffman E. Group-Based Compassion-Focused Therapy as an Adjunct to Outpatient Treatment for Eating Disorders: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2017 Mar;24(2):475-487. doi: 10.1002/cpp.2018. Epub 2016 May 30. PMID: 27237928.10.
10. Lucre KM, Corten N. An exploration of group compassion-focused therapy for personality disorder. Psychol Psychother. 2013 Dec;86(4):387-400. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.2012.02068.x. Epub 2012 May 17. PMID: 24217864.
11. Cuppage J, Baird K, Gibson J, Booth R, Hevey D. Compassion focused therapy: Exploring the effectiveness with a transdiagnostic group and potential processes of change. Br J Clin Psychol. 2018 Jun;57(2):240-254. doi: 10.1111/bjc.12162. Epub 2017 Oct 17. PMID: 29044607.
12. Kelly AC, Carter JC, Zuroff DC, Borairi S. Self-compassion and fear of self-compassion interact to predict response to eating disorders treatment: a preliminary investigation. Psychother Res. 2013;23(3):252-64. doi: 10.1080/10503307.2012.717310. Epub 2012 Aug 24. PMID: 22917037.
13. Kristin D. Neff (2003) The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion, Self and Identity, 2:3, 223-250, DOI: 10.1080/15298860309027
14. Abramson, L. Y., Seligman, M. E., & Teasdale, J. D. (1978). Learned helplessness in humans: Critique and reformulation. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87(1), 49–74. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.87.1.49
15. David, A. (2014, April 23). Recovery Expressions That Blew My Mind. HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/addiction-recovery_b_5194789
16. Alcoholics Anonymous : the story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.