Many psychological theories assume that humans are self-focused and that they are more concerned about themselves than others. However, our daily experiences seem to tell a different story. Think about a time when you failed an exam or a task. What did you say to yourself? That you are not a competent person, or even you should drop out of school? Now, think about a time when your best friend failed. What did you say to your friend? Or what would you say in such a situation? That they could work more to make things better next time?
It is easy to be compassionate towards others, but obviously not towards ourselves. In the case of a failure or pain, we are much harsher and more critical towards ourselves than we would ever be to others. Recently, ‘being compassionate to self’, in other words ‘self-compasion’, has become a popular topic in psychology. According to psychologist Kristin Neff (2003, p1), the definition of self-compassion involves three dimensions:
- Self-kindness: Treating yourself kindly rather than being harshly self-critical in instances of pain or failure.
- Common humanity: Perceiving your experiences as part of the larger human experience, rather than as separating and isolating.
- Mindfulness: Holding painful thoughts and feelings in balance awareness rather than over-identifying with them.
Research on self-compassion showed that individuals with high self-compassion have better psychological well-being. Many studies point out that as self-compassion increases, happiness, optimism, life satisfaction and motivation also increase. Being self-compassionate is also related to greater levels of emotional intelligence, coping skills, wisdom and resilience. Psychologists have also studied how self-compassion affects our relationships with others. Contrary to the common belief that considering your needs and wishes in a relationship will be detrimental to the relationship itself, researchers have recently found quite the opposite. According to Neff and Beretvas, self-compassionate individuals displayed more positive behaviours in relationships than those who lacked self-compassion. More interestingly, self-compassion turned out to be a stronger predictor of relationship satisfaction than self-esteem and attachment style. Another study by Jacobson and his colleagues revealed that individuals with higher levels of self-compassion tend to report higher quality romantic relationships. They also noted that self-compassion might be a unique and positive predictor of relationship quality beyond all other determinants of it.
Why do self-compassionate individuals have healthier interpersonal relationships? Their self-compassion provides them with emotional resilience which allows them to respond in more constructive ways when there is a conflict. Besides, a study by Yarnell and Neff found that self-compassionate individuals tend to value both their own personal values and the desires of their partners; therefore, they are better in resolving conflicts in a healthy and productive manner. They also can balance their needs of autonomy and connectedness which are crucial psychological needs that should be satisfied for healthy and productive interactions with others. Self-compassionate individuals’ ability to meet their needs of comfort, kindness and belonging helps them to give their partners more freedom instead of over-control. Lastly, since they kindly accept themselves, this gives them a chance to accept their partners in a similar way. All in all, self-compassionate individuals are more aware of what they need and what their partner need.
In sum, there is consensus around the positive effects of self-compassion on our personal and interpersonal lives. Being kind, caring and compassionate to yourself when you fail, when you make a mistake, or when you feel bad, is as healthy as showing the same to someone you care about.
For further reading
Jacobson, E. H. K., Wilson, K. G., Kurz, A. S., & Kellum, K. K. (2018). Examining self-compassion in romantic relationships. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 8, 69-73.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.
Neff, K. D., & Beretvas, S. N. (2013). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 12(1), 78-98.
Yarnell, L. M., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion, interpersonal conflict resolutions, and well-being. Self and Identity, 12(2), 146–159.