We were intrigued by the implications of a new body of research summarized by New York Times health correspondent Tara Parker-Pope in her “Well” blog.
As she wrote, “... giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic ... self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.”
Her article focused on research by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., of the University of Texas, and summarized a controlled trial from Wake Forest University, which found that planting self-forgiving notions in the minds of female college students reduced their junk-food consumption.
Prompted by Parker-Pope’s blog post, we searched the literature, and uncovered additional relevant research published four years ago by Duke University researchers (Leary MR et al. 2007).
The Duke team investigated the thinking and emotional processes by which people with self-compassionate attitudes deal with unpleasant life events.
(The term “self-compassion” refers to people who forgive their own shortcomings, and tend not to beat up on themselves.)
The five Duke studies grouped participants’ according to their attitudes toward themselves, then evaluated their behavior in various contexts:
Reports on negative events in their daily lives
Responses to hypothetical scenarios
Reactions to interpersonal feedback
Rating their or others' videotaped performances in an awkward situation
Reflecting on negative personal experiences
The results showed that people with self-compassionate attitudes had resilient reactions to negative events that buffered them against negative self-feelings when imagining distressing social events.
When notions of self-compassion were planted in the minds of participants who ranked low in self-esteem, this intervention seemed to moderate negative emotions in response to ambivalent feedback from other people.
People who ranked low in self-compassion undervalued their videotaped performances, compared with the perceptions of those performances by objective observers.
Finally, when people were unknowingly nudged toward having a more self-compassionate perspective, they were more likely to acknowledge their role in negative events without feeling overwhelmed with negative emotions.
The Duke team concluded that feeling kindly toward yourself is more psychologically beneficial than holding yourself in high regard:
“In general, these studies suggest that self-compassion attenuates people's reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem.”
Leary MR, Tate EB, Adams CE, Allen AB, Hancock J. Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007 May;92(5):887-904.
Neff KD, Vonk R. Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: two different ways of relating to oneself. J Pers. 2009 Feb;77(1):23-50. Epub 2008 Nov 28.
Parker-Pope T. Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges. The New York Times. February 28, 2011. Accessed at http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/