How Do I Love Me?

March 18th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

New studies on self-compassion suggest you should be counting the ways.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A recent New York Times piece about a new area of psychological research called “self-compassion” reveals compelling new reasons to be a little nicer to yourself.

In the piece, writer Tara Parker-Pope reports how people that find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others often score low on self-compassion tests, beating themselves up for perceived failures like being overweight or not exercising. Conversely, people who score high on self-compassion tests have less depression and anxiety, tend to be happier and more optimistic, and even have an easier time losing weight.

Parker-Pope cites the research of Dr. Kirstin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, who maintains that being self-compassionate shouldn’t be confused with self-indulgence. “I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

Neff’s new book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, contains a self-compassion scale – 26 statements meant to determine how often people are kind to themselves. You can test yourself at Neff’s website; calculations for qualities like “isolation,” “self-judgment,” and “self-kindness” are split out and explained. She recommends exercises like meditation, repeating mantras, and taking self-compassion breaks.

Reaction to the Times piece was split among readers, with some commenters noting the self-compassion idea might be a little too touchy-feely. For “Talbot,” the idea verges on rewarding narcissism: “Self compassion when it’s appropriate is wonderful and healing. But some of the nastiest and most destructive people I’ve ever known have self-compassion in spades. I don’t think this is a one size fits all kind of an issue–the more self compassion the better.”

But another reader named “Kelly” noted, “Self-compassion not only helps dieters, but anyone trying to make an important life change, from quitting smoking to conquering procrastination.” She shared a video from the recent Stanford Happiness conference in which Dr. Kelly McGonigal (it’s unclear if the two Kellys are one and the same) describes the importance of self-compassion for mental health, self-control and promoting positive change.

The idea is consistent with another new book Parker-Pope mentions – The Self-Compassion Diet, by Jean Fain, a psychotherapist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School. “Self-compassion is the missing ingredient in every diet and weight-loss plan,” Fain said. “Most plans revolve around self-discipline, deprivation and neglect.”

Of course, losing weight, quitting smoking, and shedding other bad habits aren’t as simple as suddenly being nicer to yourself. Clinical psychologist Dr. Leslie Baker-Phelps also wrote in, providing a link to her Psychology Today piece on combining compassion with increased self-awareness in order to make the change.

How do you fare on the quiz? Do you agree with the first reader that self-compassion can be a license to forgive yourself for being mean, or do you see lack of self-compassion as a pervasive problem?