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The Secret To Better Relationships? Self-Compassion. Here’s How To Practice It.
February 13, 2021
We hear a lot about self-compassion these days. And while most of us would probably agree being kinder to ourselves is a good idea, it can be tough to know how to put this into practice that goes beyond “treating yourself” or “taking a bath.” There’s more to it than you might think. And research shows that practicing self-compassion can not only improve our relationship with ourselves but also with others.
Want to practice some self-compassion this Valentine’s day? Make time to take care of your emotional and physical health, fill your own cup, rest, and be still with expert teachers like Shawn Moore, Dora Kamau, and Barbara Faison in the Self-Care Collection on Muse.
What Self-Compassion Is and How It’s Different From Self-Love
Self-love and self-compassion are often used interchangeably. And while they are quite similar, knowing the difference can help you put it into practice. Self-love is defined as “a state of appreciation for oneself that grows from actions that support our physical, psychological, and spiritual growth (4).” It’s about valuing yourself as a human being who is worthy of love and respect.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, has been defined as simply being “kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings (2).” It means you act the same way toward yourself when you’re going through a tough time as you would toward a close friend. You see the suffering, empathize and offer understanding. It doesn’t mean shoving away negative emotions. Rather, it means embracing and feeling them which can lead to positive emotions (2).
In a nutshell, self-compassion is a choice you make toward yourself at any moment, while self-love can grow from self-compassion (and may take some time to build up).
What does self-compassion look like in practice? Let’s say you just got criticism from your boss on a project you worked on. Instead of beating yourself up for doing a bad job, you could see the feedback as an opportunity to do better. Or maybe you’re feeling tired and unproductive one day. Instead of calling yourself lazy or useless, you could remind yourself that not only is this feeling normal, but everyone feels this way sometimes.
The Benefits of Practicing Self-Compassion
If our daily challenges are like wounds, self-compassion acts like a salve to soothe them. It helps us navigate obstacles and set-backs with more understanding and equanimity. And while that might not seem surprising, extensive research over the past two decades reveals just how powerful self-compassion can be. Since 2003, more than 200 journal articles and papers have dug into the topic. What did they discover?
One of the most consistent findings was that greater self-compassion is associated with fewer mental and behavioral disorders. Those who practiced self-compassion also showed greater resilience and relationship satisfaction (2).
How can self-compassion boost our resilience? Research suggests that self-compassion deactivates our threat system—associated with feelings of insecure attachment and defensiveness as well as activation of our involuntary systems (heart rate, breathing, etc). And it activates our caregiving system, which is associated with feelings of secure attachment, safety, and the oxytocin (“love drug”) system (2).
In one study, undergraduates were asked to recall an unpleasant event from the past or imagine one in the future—around failure, loss, humiliation, or the like. Their results found that those who were higher in self-compassion fared better. They showed less extreme reactions, fewer negative emotions, greater acceptance, and more perspective when looking at their own problems (2).
In another study, couples were surveyed using a self-compassion scale developed by Kristen Neff, one of the leading self-compassion researchers. They were asked to assess two things: how self-compassionate they were as well as their partner’s behavior in the relationship. The study wanted to see if there was a correlation between the two. What did they find? Those with self-reported levels of self-compassion felt more authentic and happy in the relationship (5).
Further, those who identified as self-compassionate tended to be better partners. They were described as more affectionate, intimate, accepting, and supportive of their partner’s autonomy. (5)
In addition to helping those who are together, research also suggests self-compassion helps those who are separating. When it came to marital separation, researchers found that those who practiced self-compassion when thinking about their breakup seemed to adjust better—not just at the time, but nine months out (3).
How Mindfulness Can Help Us Be More Compassionate With Ourselves (and Others)
When it comes to practicing self-compassion, mindfulness plays a key role. The practice of being aware in each moment without judgment can help us see our actions more objectively, notice how our actions affect others, and potentially give us insight into why we act the way we do. While tips like “don’t compare yourself to other people” and “stop caring about what others think,” scratch the surface, mindfulness can help us go a little deeper. Here are four attitudes of mindfulness and how they can help you be more self-compassionate.
Share Gratitudes with Yourself.
There’s a reason practicing gratitude is so popular. Not only does it feel good to do, but there’s a lot of research to back its efficacy. Studies have linked it to greater happiness and positive emotion, as well as stronger relationships and higher self-esteem (6). And these don’t have to be grand events—recognizing small, everyday moments is just as effective. You could be grateful that your partner made extra coffee for you in the morning or maybe you feel gratitude for the stranger in front of you at the coffee shop who secretly paid for your coffee.
In a culture that tends to move fast and be loud, practicing patience isn’t always easy. But adding a dose of it to your day can have a profound effect, especially in relationships. Instead of rushing your partner out the door, you could let them go at the pace they need. If they start into a never-ending work story, try practicing patience and see what shifts. Studies show patient people tend to be better friends, enjoy better mental and physical health, and even reach their goals quicker (7).
Staying curious, or keeping a “Beginner’s Mind” can help you learn more in the moment and even turn a set-back into an opportunity. In Zen Buddhism, this is referred to as “shoshin” and it means having a mindset that’s willing to see everything for the first time. It’s about checking your past narratives at the door and staying curious and open in every situation. For example, if you notice your comparing yourself to someone else (or your partner) and feelings of inadequacy start to bubble up, try getting curious. You could ask yourself: What do I like about them so much?How can I grow that part of myself? And notice what comes up.
We label and judge things all day long. That meeting was bad, that social post was good, I don’t like my new colleague, my partner has bad taste. But when we judge, just like the aperture of a lens closing, our ability to see gets smaller. Misunderstandings happen which can lead to everything from daily discord to discrimination. Imagine instead if you suspended your judgment with yourself or your partner. You may feel more space to experience and they’ll likely feel more comfortable opening up to you and being honest. Research also shows that practicing non-judgment can make you more trustworthy (9).
Self-compassion doesn’t mean feeling positive all the time. That would be unrealistic. Rather it’s about making the daily choice to forgive yourself or your partner when set-backs happen. It’s not always easy to do. Mindfulness practices like sharing gratitude, practicing patience, staying curious, and being non-judgemental are all tools you can use at the moment to help.
Borenstein, Jeffrey, M.D. 2020, February 12. Self-Love and What It Means. Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. https://bit.ly/3twfLBS
Sbarra, David A; Smith, Hillary L; and Mehl, Matthias R. 2012, January 26. When leaving your ex, love yourself: observational ratings of self-compassion predict the course of emotional recovery following marital separation. National Institute of Health. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22282874/