The Neuropsychology of Self Compassion: thoughts for 2021.

A growing body of research suggests that self-compassion is strongly associated with psychological health. One of the most consistent findings in the literature is that greater self-compassion is linked to less anxiety and depression (Neff, 2003; Pauley & McPherson, 2010).

There are physiological reasons underlying this association. Neuropsychological research has found that individuals trained therapeutically to increase feelings of self-compassion had reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also appeared to increase heart-rate variability, which is associated with a greater ability to self-soothe when stressed. In other studies, self-compassionate people have been found to worry less than those who lack self-compassion, are less perfectionistic, and tend to experience fewer negative emotions. However, they are also LESS likely to suppress unwanted thoughts and emotions and are more willing to acknowledge their negative emotions as valid and important.

For the purpose of this article, although I realize there is a wide range of writing and discussion on this topic, I define self compassion as having three primary components:

  • Self-kindness, or refraining from harsh criticism of the self.
  • Sense of connection to the world and others, or the fact that all people are imperfect and all people experience pain.
  • Mindfulness, or maintaining intentional awareness of experiences, even those that are painful, rather than either minimizing/ignoring or exaggerating their effect.

There is also evidence that intentionally cultivating self-compassion stimulates parts of the brain associated with generalized compassion. Using fMRI technology, neuropsychologists found that instructing individuals to be more self-compassionate was associated with neuronal activity similar to what occurs when feelings of empathy for others are evoked. This research would suggest that the tendency to respond to suffering with caring concern is a general process applied to both oneself and others, so that self-compassion is “contagious”, so to speak. From the perspective of psychology, building the capacity to hold suffering in compassionate awareness facilitates the ability to extend compassion to multiple targets: the self, others, and all sentient beings (see Sharon Salzburg, 1997)

Self compassion and mental health
Self-compassion is also often confused with or linked to self-esteem, but the two differ: While self-esteem focuses on favorable self-evaluation, particularly for achievements, self-compassion is a form of self-acceptance, even in the face of failure. This emotion represents a shift away from being the best toward simply being the person one is. A person who scores high on measures of self-compassion might accept failures. Self-compassion does not depend on either social comparisons or one’s sense of personal success; rather, recognition and acceptance of one’s flaws often leads to growth and personal development in a way that self-esteem does not. A lack of compassion for the self can play a role in mental health conditions, especially anxiety and depression.

How to increase self compassion
It may be helpful to frame self-criticism as a critique that might be given to a friend. If the words are too harsh for a loved one, then they are likely also too harsh for the self. In general, people tend to be more accepting of the flaws of others than they are of their own. I always ask patients who are speaking about themselves in self-deprecatory terms, would you speak to your friend or a loved one like that?

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, (MBCT), developed from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based meditation, is meant to increase self-awareness and thus can positively influence levels of self-compassion. The goal of this therapy is for those in treatment to become increasingly able to see themselves separately from the negative thoughts and moods they might experience. In MBCT, the process of healing includes the interjection of positive thoughts in response to a negative mood, but not denying the negative feelings, so those who experience a sense of lowness after focusing on their mistakes and flaws can often come to accept themselves more readily as a whole person.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff developed a self-compassion scale to help people measure whether their own self-compassion is low, moderate, or high. She also developed several exercises that help enhance self-compassion, including writing a letter to oneself, from the point of view of a compassionate friend, every day for a week. Journaling or otherwise writing about personal imperfections and inadequacies can also help increase mindfulness, and when combined with changes in techniques of personal criticism, this practice can also positively influence the development of self-compassion.

Last, but far from least, a self-care routine is also essential, as the meeting of personal needs can increase ability and energy to effectively care for and support others. When personal wellness declines, negative feelings might often be directed toward the self, and this can also make it more difficult to feel compassion for others.

Also see: Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First.

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