Self-Compassion: The Most Important Life Skill?

Kristin Neff with her son Rowan
Kristin Neff with her son Rowan. (Image credit: Justin Jin.)

A charming animated baby, Kristin Neff's son Rowan retreated into himself as a toddler, losing his few words and becoming prone to inexplicable screaming fits.

There are numerous ways Neff could have reacted to Rowan's 2004 diagnosis of autism. She could have buried her emotions, become despondent or immediately found something to blame.

But Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was in the midst of pioneering psychological research on self-compassion. And her findings suddenly proved invaluable to her personal life. Being sympathetic and kind to herself let her cope constructively and offered insight into how to parent her struggling son.

Neff wrote about it all in "Self-Compassion" (William Morrow, 2011), released this April. And a budding field of research has  psychologists are finding that self-compassion may be the most important life skill, imparting resilience, courage, energy and creativity. [Read: 5 Ways to Foster Self-Compassion in Your Child]

It's also a skill many people lack.

Self-compassion is often misunderstood as being soft and indulgent; and the phrase alone would probably turn the stomach of Amy Chua, whose book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" (Penguin, 2011) re-stoked the debate about how strict or lenient we should be with our kids and with ourselves.

But psychological research says neither side of this debate wins.

According to Chua, imparting self-esteem in children should stem from accomplishments, justifying the use of authoritarian tactics to force kids into achieving and thereby build their self-esteem. But the harsh punishments and criticisms this requires — Chua threatened to deny one daughter lunch and dinner for years if she did not perfect a piano piece called "The Little White Donkey" and called her other daughter "garbage" — have been associated with anxiety and depression later in life.

Conversely, current Western parenting theories say that being "given" high self-esteem paves the road to achievement. This leads parents to indulgently praise everything little Emma does and protect her from frustrations that may damage her self-esteem. However, recent research has linked such upbringing to neuroticism, emotional fragility and narcissism.

At this deadlock, psychologists have recently taken a step back. Re-examining previous research against more than a decade of new studies, some psychologists are suggesting the emphasis on self-esteem may be distracting us from a far more important life skill: self-compassion. As motivating as it is comforting, self-compassion may uproot previous paradigms that have focused, to a fault, on building self-esteem, they say.

What is self-compassion?

"It is not this nimby, bimby stuff," said Paul Gilbert, a researcher at Kingsway Hospital in the United Kingdom. "Compassion is sensitivity to the suffering of self and others and a commitment to do something about it."

Self-compassion, as defined by Neff in the academic literature, has three aspects: mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.

Mindfulness is holding your own thoughts and feelings rather than suppressing or being carried away by them. In Neff's case, when she discovered Rowan's diagnosis, mindfulness meant pausing the flood of worries and accepting her anger, disappointment and pain.

Common humanity, in part, is the understanding that your feelings and experiences are not completely unique. No matter how hard we try to avoid or hide them, all humans go through hardships and have daily pains, frustrations and disappointments. By acknowledging she wasn't the first to have a child diagnosed with autism, Neff found strength in numbers.

Being kind to yourself is not only providing comfort in the moment; it is also committing, whenever possible, to reducing future instances of such suffering. In Neff and her husband's case, being sympathetic to themselves not only helped them deal with their son's diagnosis, but it has helped them find novel ways to ease some of their son's symptoms. For instance, instead of struggling against autism, Neff said, they have accepted it as part of their son. This openness helped them discover that Rowan is calmer and more expressive around horses, which have since featured large in helping Rowan cope with his disorder. (Their story was featured in the book and documentary film "The Horse Boy.")

The problem with high self-esteem

While Neff, Gilbert and other compassion researchers find fault with Chua's hypercritical approach to parenting, they find common ground when it comes to her critique of the West's tendency to hand out empty compliments, give everyone a trophy and thus artificially inflate self-esteem.

Decades of research, particularly in the 1970s and '80s, suggested having high self-esteem is the cornerstone of happy, successful lives. This spurred an emphasis on self-esteem-building in parenting books, schools and even prisons.

But now scientists are realizing they may have been measuring the wrong thing; all the benefits of having high self-esteem are equally found among the self-compassionate, said psychologist Mark Leary, a researcher at Duke University. And when statistically looking at self-compassion alone, the negative aspects of high self-esteem, such as narcissism, disappear.

Where self-compassion is a way of relating to your self — especially when times are tough — self-esteem is a measure of yourself against others. In order to keep self-esteem high, you have to convince yourself you are better (or, preferably, the best), either by denying your faults and pains or by putting others down, and usually both. [10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

But putting such stress on maintaining high self-esteem can be problematic, Leary said. While often erroneously used as a source of comfort, self-esteem is supposed to guide us, telling us when to try harder or when to apologize, he said. It should work like the gas gauge in a car, Leary explained. "If you artificially get stuck on full, you are going to make bad judgments about when to fill your tank up."

With or without self-esteem interventions, most people think they are better than average on just about every trait psychologists have bothered , including self-awareness, Neff explained. And today's college students, according to a 2010 meta-analysis of past relevant research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, are more narcissistic than they have ever been.

They may also be less resilient and more fragile psychologically, according to experts such as Hara Estroff Marano, author of "A Nation of Wimps" (Broadway, 2008). Kids who, say, grow up constantly hearing "You are so smart," may start believing "smartness" is part of what makes them lovable. And therefore, anything that does not support this picture of themselves, such as a C on a test, a negative evaluation or a job rejection, causes them to become defensive, anxious or, in some extreme cases, completely fall apart, Marano contends.

Rather than continuing to put stock in building self-esteem, psychologists are increasingly finding, as Gilbert put it, "the secret to success is the ability to fail." And this is exactly where self-compassion steps in.

Will self-compassion make me lazy?

Due to our ever-increasing competitive societies, researchers speculate the tendency to choose self-punishment, rather than self-compassion, is on the rise. People often believe that punishing themselves will keep them in line and ultimately keep them safe.  [Sidebar: The Neuroscience of Self-Esteem]

Unfortunately, self-criticism can lead to generalized hostility (toward oneself and others), anxiety and depression; these are problems that can handicap people from reaching their full potential.

Self-critics also report feeling like they have lower energy levels, researchers have found, and often subconsciously engage in self-handicapping strategies, such as procrastination, Neff told LiveScience.

Turning instead to the side that will offer a mental hug may sound soft. And according to Neff, the most common fear about becoming self-compassionate is that it will lower performance standards and encourage laziness. But researchers have found that self-compassionate people are actually less likely to sit on the couch all day eating bonbons.

"Self-compassion begins to sound like you are indulging yourself, but we don't find that. People high in self-compassion tend to have higher standards, work harder and take more personal responsibility for their actions," Leary said.

Presumably because they are not afraid of being mentally taken through the ringer, researchers also think self-compassionate people may be more aware of their own faults, have more courage and be more motivated to persevere. Those with self-compassion may even open access to higher levels of creative thinking, suggests one 2010 study in the Creativity Research Journal.

Like a good parent, the compassion-giving system also makes sure your goals are actually in your best interest. In other words, it gently nudges you away from "striving" that is fueled by addictive behaviors, such as greed, unhealthy eating and substance abuse and towards goals motivated by desires for greater health and well-being for yourself and others. For example, self-compassion training has been found to help both anorexics and people who are overweight.

Self-compassion encourages a person's "drive" while also giving it focus and healthy, wholesome boundaries. "The soothing system," as Gilbert put it, "gives the context for the striving."

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Robin Nixon Pompa

Robin Nixon is a former staff writer for Live Science. Robin graduated from Columbia University with a BA in Neuroscience and Behavior and pursued a PhD in Neural Science from New York University before shifting gears to travel and write. She worked in Indonesia, Cambodia, Jordan, Iraq and Sudan, for companies doing development work before returning to the U.S. and taking journalism classes at Harvard. She worked as a health and science journalist covering breakthroughs in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology for the lay public, and is the author of "Allergy-Free Kids; The Science-based Approach To Preventing Food Allergies," (Harper Collins, 2017). She will attend the Yale Writer’s Workshop in summer 2023.