Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-Being: Applying Self-Compassion Principles to Well-Being

Written By: Barak Raz

Our post-modern, technologically advanced, individualistic, wealthy, progressive and competition-driven society appears to have lessened our capacity to be compassion-ate with others and ourselves. Numerous mediating factors might contribute to this situation, including compromised traditional, social, communal and cultural ties, ur-banization and emigration trends, economics, globalization, politics and neo-liberal market pressures. Current studies in health, psycho-social and psychiatric domains further echo alarming client reports of growing sense of alienation, lack of support, dissatisfaction and lower sense of happiness, which may further have direct and indi-rect impact on the well-being of adults, children and families . It is in this context, that self-compassion is gaining momentum as an emerging and meaningful field of psy-chology with wide range application potential.

The concept of self-compassion has roots in ancient philosophies, ideologies and cultures, and occupies important aspects of many religions. However, it is only re-cently that self-compassion has been researched in more formalized settings. More-over, although relatively new to psychology, self-compassion concept is surprisingly fitting with several psychotherapeutic approaches such as cognitive, positive, human-istic, present and strength focused schools of thought. In general, self-compassion refers to the way we relate and treat ourselves. More specifically, it involves feelings of caring and self-directed kindness in the face of personal, interpersonal and contextual suffering and involves the recognition that one’s perceived suffering, failures and inadequacies are part of the human condition . Furthermore, research on the applicability and effectiveness of self-compassion is showing great promise in such areas as stress reduction, anxiety, depression, quality of life, self-esteem, intrinsic motivation in the classroom, emotional intelligence, emotional maturity and improved psychological well-being . Research has been demonstrating that treating ourselves in self-compassionate ways might be of outmost importance to our sense of psychological well-being, in the context of academic, occupational, health and personal domains.

To further understand self-compassion, it would be useful to expand discussion on suffering. According to studies in this area, suffering can be experienced in response to an event, a situation, an emotional response, a psychological state, spiritual alien-ation, or a physical response to illness or pain . Suffering manifests as a pattern of decreased self-care and ability to relate to others, and diminished autonomy. Where self-compassion by comparison, manifests as a pattern of increased self-care capacity, compassion, empathy for others, increased relatedness and sense of community, autonomy, efficacy, independence and healthier sense of self in the face of suffering. One great example of the use of compassion in the face of suffering is described by Dr. Frankl, a holocaust survivor and psychiatrist :

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

 

Furthermore, research has identified several important aspects of self-compassion including, self-kindness, non-critical self-judgment, communal sense of humanity, i.e. a sense of belonging and ability to show empathy to others, social connectedness versus isolation, and mindfulness versus identification. It is also worth noting that self-compassion and empathy for others have been identified as powerful contribu-tors to well-being in that they add to our sense of security and attachment to our her-itage, as well as attachment to our social, cultural and spiritual spheres . In addition, personal characteristics such as sociability and extraversion/introversion, to name a few, as well as cultural values, such as individualistic versus collectivistic values, might also impact our sense of well-being.

It is interesting to note that these self-compassion aspects appear to be consistent with research findings on psychological well-being components. More specifically, although this subject matter is recognized as complex, research suggests that in general, psychological well-being includes subjective, social, and psychological di-mensions as well as health-promoting attitudes and behaviours. Factors that have been found to correlate with psychological well-being include self-acceptance, mean-ingful ties to others, a sense of autonomy in thought and action, the ability to manage complex environments to suit personal needs and values, the pursuit of meaningful goals and a sense of purpose in life and continued growth and development as a person . These similarities may further support our recognition of the potential value and strength of self-compassion approach.

Equally important is the fact that the positive effects of self-compassion appear to impact physiological well-being. For example, studies looking at meditation and self-control techniques aimed at fostering an attitude of self-compassion, have demon-strated to strengthen neuro-physiological and immune systems .

Following this brief introduction and discussion of self-compassion and its overlapping consistency with psychological well-being, we can now look at several strategies aimed at applying self-compassion to everyday life, whereby leading to an increase in our capacity for self-compassion and further contributing to a healthy sense of psy-chological well-being.

  • Think of compassionate people from your past and present, such as your parents, special family members, friends, teachers and positive role models and focus on the meaningfully encouraging messages and exchanges with them. Then, notice the warm and soothing feelings you get in relation to them and yourself. This can also be used as a great grounding tool, i.e. an anxiety management tool that grounds you to the present time in a safe way, when faced with an upsetting feeling, thought or situation.
  • Decide to become your own best friend and apply the support skills you use with others to yourself, when facing challenges. You can use a variety of means to ac-complish this, such as reflective, imagery, written or verbal approaches. For ex-ample, choose to take a loving, warm, kind and understanding approach to self. Learn to honour and respect your needs and wishes by consciously thinking and taking care of them. You could also consider using imagery, where you imagine your inner self in a warm and compassionate manner. This approach can be ex-panded to the use of journaling and/ or writing a reflective letter to yourself, which are typical tools encouraged in therapy.
  • Reach out and get involved emotionally, socially and/ or spiritually with your community. It will help you feel a sense of belonging and connectedness beyond yourself and allow you to practice empathy with others. In addition, it will help put personal suffering in perspective. For example, you might experience a wide range of negative feelings in regards to a difficult work, relational or family situa-tion. Being involved in some community engagements, such as charity work with the less fortunate, might help put your own struggles in a different light. For in-stance, consider the following self-discussion in a hypothetical and yet common case of dealing with career expectations. “My feelings are hurt and I feel frustrat-ed as a result of feeling I have not lived up to my full potential and feel that others have not been supportive of my career ambitions. However, it is also true that I have managed to do relatively well when I consider the career barriers of….”

 

Lastly, given our discussion, consider the following clinical vignette. Imagine seeing a client or hearing a friend express the following belief: “he or she will not love me be-cause I am no good”. A cognitive therapist may look at the negative self-value and self-assumption of being no good and un-lovable; confront the imbedded negative self-expectation that another could not love him/her; or discuss the low self-efficacy perception that one is incapable of being good or loved. How would you approach this from a self-compassion perspective?

In conclusion, the use of self-compassion concept to improve psychological well-being in the face of suffering and modern day pressures appears to offer significant value. Self-compassion refers to the manner in which we relate and treat ourselves in the face of suffering, and research is showing promise in applying self compassion to the treatment of various mental health and everyday challenges, including stress, self esteem, depression, anxiety, emotional maturity and sense of well-being. In addition, self-compassion appears consistent with positive and cognitive based psychological schools of thoughts, as well as with findings on important well-being components. This article further presents several self-help strategies using the concept of self-compassion to everyday life challenges, which are aimed at increasing our inherent capacity for self-compassion and sense of psychological well-being.

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