Self-Compassion: A Powerful Antidote to Stress

self-compassion to reduce stress

“If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others.”

The Dalai Lama

The Golden Rule – Treat others as you would like others to treat you – is a maxim found in most religions and societies worldwide.

And yet, a surprising number of people fail to treat themselves with sufficient compassion and care.

Here I present evidence that self-compassion is a crucial resource during times of stress.

Compassion

There are many definitions of compassion. Below, I offer three descriptions of compassion for your consideration.

My preferred definition of compassion, penned by Jennifer Goetz and Colleagues, is that compassion is ‘the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help‘ (1).

The second definition of compassion, proposed by Lazarus, states that ‘The core relational theme for compassion, therefore, is being moved by another’s suffering and wanting to help (2).

Finally, Spreecher and Freer propose that compassion ‘is an attitude toward other[s], either close others or strangers or all of humanity; containing feelings, cognitions, and behaviors that are focused on caring, concern, tenderness, and an orientation toward supporting, helping, and understanding the other[s], particularly when the other[s] is [are] perceived to be suffering or in need.’ (3).

As you can see, the consensus is that compassion is not just an emotion. It’s a call to action.

Why do We Feel Compassion?

Compassion provides three functions that are crucial for human flourishing.

First, compassion supports our children. Children are born in an incredibly fragile state and require intensive, long-term care and support to develop into successful adults. Having a powerful emotional drive to protect vulnerable offspring dramatically increases the chances of children surviving to adulthood (1).

Second, compassionate individuals make better life partners. Compassionate partners are more likely to devote resources to their partners and children (1). Moreover, a compassionate partner is willing to provide physical care (protection, affection, support and encouragement, and touch) that enable the flourishing of children (1).

Finally, compassionate individuals build strong communities. People with high compassion are far more likely to be cooperative, display trustworthy behavior, and engage in mutually beneficial exchanges among people in their community (1). In turn, strong communities support and protect individuals within the community, increasing their survival and the survival of their offspring (1).

Thus, compassion provides a strong evolutionary advantage, particularly during periods of stress and hardship.

What is Self-Compassion?

Kristin Neff describes self-compassion as ‘being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience‘ (4).

Self-compassion consists of three core components (5).

One is self-kindness. Self-kindness means expressing forgiveness, empathy, sensitivity, warmth, and patience during periods of pain, setbacks, or failure. In addition, Self-kindness represents the desire to care for oneself in moments of grief and pain (5).

Two is shared humanity. A sense of shared humanity means framing your trials and tribulations as part of the broader human experience. For example, acknowledging your common humanity enables you to see failure and disappointment as something that all people experience in life (5).

Three is mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you balance painful thoughts and feelings, neither avoiding nor fixating on your pain and distress (5).

Self-Compassion is not Self Pity

Self-compassion is not a form of self-pity. Far from it!

Self-pity brings forth feelings of shame, resentment, and regret. However, self-compassion lets you view your actions, behaviors, and emotions without self-recrimination (6). In addition, by avoiding feelings of guilt and self-recrimination, self-compassion facilitates the honest self-assessment required to make positive changes in your behavior (6).

Furthermore, people who experience self-pity feel isolated and exaggerate their feeling of personal suffering. In contrast, self-compassion strengthens your connection to other people by highlighting that suffering is a universal human experience (6). Thus, feeling connected to others is a powerful antidote to the narcissistic focus of self-pity

Finally, the non-judgemental, open-minded self-compassion approach discourages feelings of harsh self-condemnation that contribute to self-woe (6).  

Self-Compassion Supports Positive Coping Strategies

While there are many ways to cope with stress, your approach to stress is either (i) adaptive (i.e., leads to long-term improvement); or (ii) maladaptive (no improvement or worse, deterioration).

Adaptive coping strategies entail you actively dealing with the source of your stress while managing the negative emotions evoked by your stress response. In contrast, maladaptive coping strategies usually involve avoiding stress while suppressing or denying your emotional reaction.

People who enjoy high levels of self-compassion are well-positioned to cope with stress. Because self-compassion encourages an honest self-assessment without harsh self-judgment, you are more likely to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and failures (6). Thus, honest self-assessment supports adaptive behaviors such as strategizing, goal setting, and risk-taking to help you regain control and reduce suffering (6).

Furthermore, people with high self-compassion tend to adopt behaviors that maintain their health and wellbeing to avoid suffering (6). These can include maintaining a healthy diet and exercise, proactively managing potentially stressful situations, and seeking help when required (6).

Finally, during times of stress, self-compassion helps you face negative emotions with equanimity and discourages you from obsessing over destructive thoughts and feelings (6). Instead, people with self-compassion mindfully engage with stress, pain, and suffering by healing themselves with kindness (6).

Self-Compassion Reduces the Negative Effects of Stress

Does self-compassion reduce stress? Hell yes!

Several large-scale analyses have confirmed that self-compassion is highly effective at reducing symptoms of stress.

For example, Angus MacBeth and Andrew Gumley analyzed 20 independent studies to determine how self-compassion impacts stress, depression, and anxiety (7). Strikingly, they found a substantial, statistically significant reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression in people with high self-compassion (7).

More recently, Christina Ewert and Colleagues analyzed 130 studies to assess the effect of self-compassion on coping with stress (5). They confirmed that self-compassion increased positive coping strategies and, more importantly, self-compassion significantly reduced maladaptive coping strategies (5).

Thus, there is widespread and robust support that self-compassion increases your resilience to stress (5, 7).

Take-Home Message

At first glance, you may dismiss self-compassion as nothing more than a hippie ‘pop-psychology’ solution doomed to fail in the real world.

However, over a hundred independent studies have confirmed that self-compassion is a powerful antidote against stress.

Self-compassion works so well because it promotes adaptive stress-coping approaches that reduce stress while suppressing maladaptive behaviors that make stress worse.

Thus, self-compassion is one of the most potent anti-stress tools available.

Stay tuned for follow-up articles outlining how you can increase self-compassion.

Self-Compassion reduces symptoms of depression
Self-Compassion reduces symptoms of depression

References and Further Reading

1.            J. L. Goetz, D. Keltner, E. Simon-Thomas, Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychol Bull 136, 351-374 (2010).

2.            R. S. Lazarus, Emotion and Adaptation. (Oxford University Press, 1991).

3.            S. Sprecher, B. Fehr, Compassionate love for close others and humanity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 22, 629-651 (2005).

4.            K. D. Neff, The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Self and Identity 2, 223-250 (2003).

5.            C. Ewert, A. Vater, M. Schröder-Abé, Self-Compassion and Coping: a Meta-Analysis. Mindfulness 12, 1063-1077 (2021).

6.            K. Neff, Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity 2, 85-101 (2003).

7.            A. MacBeth, A. Gumley, Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clin Psychol Rev 32, 545-552 (2012).

Acknowledgments

Images created by Volodymyr Zakharov and Dorottya_Mathe

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