Why we know that exercising self-compassion can help you feel better and be better

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  • Studies demonstrate that exercising self-compassion can do more than make you feel better; it supports your efforts to be better too.

For the past year, while navigating multiple layers of stress during the pandemic, many of us have found it harder to focus and accomplish daily tasks. It’s easy to respond to this with self-criticism. But does this help us improve?

It is our primary goal at CEBTOhio to help people feel better and improve their lives – but we always want to do so using methods that not only “feel good” but for which there is evidence to show that they help.

The evidence

Based on the findings of an article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, practicing self-compassion seems to fit both qualities of those conditions.
Practicing self-compassion means to accept and care for yourself, and to treat yourself with kindness and concern in adversity. The article summarized three experiments testing the relationship between self-compassion and self-improvement.

In the first experiment, participants were asked to write about a perceived social inadequacy (shyness, for example). However, they were randomly divided into three different groups. Participants in the first group were asked to write about this quality from a perspective of self-compassion. In the second, they were asked instead to write about it in relation to their strengths. The third group received no instruction.

Upon coding the essays, researchers found greater instances of “incremental beliefs” – a sense that the weakness in question is changeable rather than fixed – in those who wrote from a perspective of self-compassion compared to the other two groups.

But what about motivation to change this quality?

In the second experiment, participants were asked to think of a recent time they did something they regretted. Participants were divided into the same three groups and asked to write about their regrettable behavior. They then rated their motivation to repair their behavior. Those who wrote about their transgression from a perspective of self-compassion indicated significantly higher motivation to change their behavior than those in the other conditions.

Fostering change

But the big question is: What about actual behavior change? In the third experiment, participants completed a difficult vocabulary test.

They were then given a list of words that would be on the next test they would take. Before receiving that list, participants in the first group received a reminder about self-compassion. Those in the second group received a message about self-improvement and the third received no special message. Those in the self-compassion group spent significantly more time studying the word list than those in the other two groups.

Predictably, the amount of time spent studying correlated positively with test performance.

So it appears that practicing self-compassion can be associated with a stronger belief that you can improve, increased motivation to improve and greater persistence and performance with difficult tasks. All important qualities during this difficult time.

But how do you increase your self-compassion? Fortunately, Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading psychologists who studies self-compassion, maintains a website (www.self-compassion.org) where you can access lots of resources and practical activities designed to help you cultivate an attitude of kindness toward yourself.

Practicing these kinds of activities can feel weird – especially if we are accustomed to self-criticism. I encourage you to experiment with different exercises and, if you’re having difficulty, practice self-compassion. It may lead to greater persistence and success.


About the Author:

Dean Malec, therapist and Director of Training at CEBTOhio, received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Cleveland State University. He trained in various university counseling settings during his doctoral education and completed his internship at Case Western Reserve University’s Health & Counseling Services. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Center for Evidence Based Treatment- Ohio, where he is supporting the development of an adherent DBT skills group exclusively for the young adult/college population.