As we continue to adapt to the “new normal,” it can feel like every day yields new challenges and setbacks. Indeed, remembering a time when we were at our best can seem like a distant memory. Although we may feel we should judge ourselves as harshly as possible to avoid future mistakes, research suggests the exact opposite.
Dr. Kristin Neff has championed the importance of self-compassion for quite some time. At its core, self-compassion is similar to the compassion we feel for others, just channeled towards ourselves. While many of us can be highly skilled at being compassionate towards the people we care about, we can be less inclined to take that same approach to our own situations. Her research suggests that self-compassion has three core components:
- Self-kindness means being kind and understanding to ourselves rather than judgemental about our behavior. It is about recognizing that human beings make mistakes. The goal should be to learn from them.
- Common humanity is the realization that suffering and setbacks are a natural and normal part of life. Everyone goes through it. It is a universal and shared reality.
- Mindfulness involves taking a balanced perspective. It is about being curious about our feelings and not exaggerating or minimizing our emotional state. This enables us to step back and process our emotions more effectively.
One of the most intriguing findings from this line of research involves the relationship between self-compassion and resilience. In one study, researchers revealed that medical students who had higher levels of self-compassion also exhibited greater levels of resilience. In another involving divorced individuals, higher levels of self-compassion led to greater resilience. Specifically, the divorced individuals reported less emotional disruption in their daily lives, a trend that continued up to nine months following the experiment.
In another study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, researchers explored the impact of different reactions to failure situations. In some cases, participants were primed to think about a recent setback in a way that enhanced their self-esteem (e.g. to only look at the situation in ways that focused on their positive qualities). In other cases, they were told to think about positive memories from their past, to distract themselves from their setback. The final group of participants was told to view their failure through a self-compassionate lens. Interestingly, the people who exhibited a self-compassionate approach were significantly more likely to view their failures as changeable and expressed more motivation to work harder to improve their performance in the future.
This finding was consistent with a separate study conducted by the Berkeley team in which participants were given the opportunity to retake a test that they had previously failed. When given this opportunity, people who were self-compassionate studied much longer (approximately 25% longer), which translated into significantly higher test scores than those who focused on maintaining or enhancing their self-esteem.
What makes self-compassion such a powerful tool for building resilience? First, self-compassion does not mean abdicating responsibility or lowering our expectations of ourselves. On the contrary, exercising personal forgiveness is to acknowledge our shortcomings, while recognizing that we also have the possibility of achieving excellence and success. It reinforces that these performance setbacks are temporary, which can drive us to push ourselves to our higher limits. It is a more balanced and realistic view of our capabilities and situation.
As we continue to navigate our COVID-19 world, self-compassion may be an essential skill for each of us to learn. By accepting our humanity with humility, and by affording ourselves forgiveness for our inevitable mistakes, we put ourselves in a position to be the best version of ourselves, both now and in the future.