As the idea of self-esteem begins to wane as a framework for understanding mental health, self-compassion’s benefits are drawing curiosity from the experts.
One of the hottest topics in current psychology is self-compassion. Pioneered by mental health experts such as Dr. Kristin Neff as an alternative framework to self-esteem for understanding personal mental health, it’s an attitude of treating yourself with kindness and benevolence. It’s about being mindful of your own needs and accepting those needs without self-judgment or self-criticism.
Introduction to the Value of Self-Compassion in Mental Health
Among mental health experts, self-compassion’s benefits are clear in terms of reducing professional hazards like burnout and compassion fatigue. Self-compassion is potentially just as important for members of the general public, which today is subject to what’s been called a “loneliness epidemic” that affects a vast number of Americans. In a recent study, for example, only 39% of American adults said they felt connected to others. Arguably, the crucial first step in building better social connections is caring for and understanding yourself.
For several decades in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a powerfully influential two-word phrase dominated the discussion of mental health in America: self-esteem. In the ’80s and ’90s, it was an overwhelmingly dominant trend, based on the idea that if low self-esteem could be associated with negative personal and social consequences, increasing people’s self-esteem would bring vast benefits.
In the long term, it turned out this reasoning tended to invert cause and effect. Successful people had high self-esteem because of their success, so self-esteem did not actually generate success. Psychologists have also observed unexpected downsides to the pursuit of self-esteem. Dr. Kristin D. Neff had this to say:
“High self-esteem requires standing out in a crowd — being special and above average. Attempts to enhance self-esteem have been linked to narcissism, inflated and unrealistic self-views, prejudice and bullying behavior … Self-esteem involves evaluating personal performances (‘How good am I?’) in comparison to set standards (‘What counts as good enough?’) in domains of perceived importance (‘It is important to be good at this’). This contingency means that state self-esteem can be unstable, changing according to our latest success or failure.”
So, self-esteem — though certainly important in staving off depression and suicidal ideation — ultimately fails to deliver on further promises to reduce the aggressiveness of bullies, the infidelity of cheats or the bigotry of the intolerant. The alternative she suggests is “self-compassion.” As she puts it:
“Self-compassion refers to how we relate to ourselves in instances of perceived failure, inadequacy or personal suffering … It involves being present with our own pain, feeling connected to others who are also suffering and understanding and supporting ourselves through difficult moments. Self-compassion can take a tender, nurturing form, especially when it is aimed at self-acceptance or soothing distressing emotions. However, it can also take a fierce, powerful [form], especially when it is aimed at self-protection, meeting our important needs or motivating change.”
Practiced in this way, self-compassion can be both a response to external circumstances beyond your control and a way of dealing with the consequences of your own follies or failings.
Insights From a Mental Health Expert on Self-Compassion’s Benefits
Neff is not the only expert to put forward this set of ideas. According to Christopher Gerner in his book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, and in accordance with an increasingly broad range of professional medical opinion, there are a number of key benefits from cultivating mental health and self-kindness. An informed approach to self-compassion can mean:
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Reduced stress and improved ability to manage stress-related emotion
- Reduced risk of heart disease and stroke
- Reduced susceptibility to viruses and respiratory illnesses
- Improved general health and relationships
Training to realize these benefits is accessible through therapists in both online and face-to-face formats, and a good starting point can always be found in written materials, such as the works of Gerner and Neff.
Dr. Neff, in particular, has produced a large body of experimental research on self-compassion’s benefits, anchored in a simple but powerful Self-Compassion Scale (SCS) that provides a framework for assessing self-compassion practice in a wide variety of educational and professional settings.
Practical Advice for Cultivating Self-Compassion
The body of expert advice on self-compassion anchored in systematic research is growing steadily. There are a number of commonly prescribed ways to start building self-compassion skills:
- Comfort and care for your body. Healthy eating, regular walks, regular rest and massage are all ways to improve your physical well-being.
- Write yourself a letter. If you’ve experienced something painful, practice putting your feelings about it into words. Compose a letter to yourself that describes and acknowledges your feelings without laying blame on anyone (or, importantly, on yourself).
- Encourage yourself. When you’re facing adversity, think of what you’d tell a good friend facing similar circumstances or what words you’d like to hear from such a friend. Write down these compassionate encouragements for yourself.
- Take inventory of your thoughts, feelings and actions. Make a list of these things without any attempt to suppress or deny them. Even if you don’t like some of what you see when you view this list, accept both the bad and the good in a spirit of compassion. In Buddhist terms, this is called “practicing mindfulness.”
Each of these strategies can be part of an overall package that builds long-term resilience. As Dr. Neff puts it, “The positive feelings generated appear to facilitate the broaden-and-build process … so that attention is freed up to focus on what is right in addition to what is wrong.”
Significance and Impact of Prioritizing Self-Compassion
Dr. Neff makes a direct connection between self-compassion and the ability to connect with others, and this is a core part of the potential importance of self-compassion. Reductions in stress and anxiety make social connections easier to form, and a society buttressed by self-compassion is better able to cope with crisis.
Self-compassion can be an important tool for people in recovery. Not being too hard on yourself is one of the most fundamental pieces to keep in mind for sufferers of a substance use disorder.