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A Little Self-Compassion Goes a Long Way

How do you respond when you don’t live up to your high standards? Have you learned to pump yourself up with positive affirmations? Next time you’re having a difficult time, try a little kindness instead.

Self-compassion—the ability to treat oneself kindly and without judgment when things go badly—may be more important than self-esteem for promoting feelings of well-being, according to a study published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007; 92 [5], 887-904). Social scientists have previously placed emphasis on how self-esteem—the ability to believe positively in oneself and to feel valued by others—creates feelings of well-being. In contrast, self-compassion involves caring for oneself rather than believing in oneself.

Self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness; common humanity; and mindful acceptance. While many people with high self-esteem are also self-compassionate, not all of them are. Self-compassion, in contrast to self-esteem, may be a key to maintaining resilience in the face of adversity. “If people learn only to feel better about themselves but continue to beat themselves up when they fail or make mistakes, they will be unable to cope nondefensively with their difficulties,” lead author Mark R. Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, told Duke University News & Communications.

Leary and his colleagues conducted five studies to evaluate the role of self-compassion in creating well-being, while taking self-esteem levels into consideration. The researchers determined that many effects previously associated with self-esteem might be better explained in terms of self-compassion.

The authors recommended that further research be conducted to explore self-compassion from other angles. For example, is it important only in the context of negative experiences? Are there any drawbacks to self-compassion? Does it contribute to complacency or the tendency not to take action to prevent future mistakes? While current research does not support this, why isn’t it the case? Leary added, “American society has spent a great deal of time and effort trying to promote people’s self-esteem, when a far more important ingredient of well-being may be self-compassion.”

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