What is Self-Compassion?

The term self-compassion refers to a healthy self-attitude in which one acts in a compassionate way toward  oneself,  similar  to  having  compassion  for others.  The  term  has  its  origins  in  Buddhist  philosophy, but is a relatively new concept to Western psychology  and  research.  Most  self-compassion research  to  date  has  been  in  the  general  psychology  literature,  with  only  a  few  studies  specific to  the  context  of  sport  and  exercise  psychology. Despite limited research in sport and exercise, self-compassion has begun to show much potential as a  way  for  athletes  and  exercisers  to  manage  difficult  emotional  experiences,  particularly  experiences related to evaluation and failure, in effective and healthy ways.

Components of Self-Compassion

Being  self-compassionate  involves  taking  a  nonjudgmental   attitude   toward   one’s   perceived imperfections,  limitations,  and  failures.  Kristin Neff  described  self-compassion  as  having  three components, including (1) self-kindness, (2) common humanity, and (3) mindfulness. Self-kindness entails offering oneself warmth and nonjudgmental understanding, rather than harsh self-criticism, when  confronted  with  suffering,  inadequacy,  or failure.  Common  humanity  includes  recognizing  that  being  imperfect,  making  mistakes,  and encountering life difficulties are part of the shared human  experience.  Mindfulness  represents  a  balance between rumination and thought suppression in  which  painful  feelings  are  neither  suppressed nor exaggerated.

Distinguishing Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem

While self-esteem and self-compassion share many of  the  same  potential  benefits  (e.g.,  less  anxiety  and  depression),  the  main  distinction  is  that self-compassion  is  not  based  on  positive  self-evaluations  or  on  favorable  comparisons  with others.  Instead,  self-compassionate  people  recognize that being limited and imperfect is part of the human  experience.  In  addition,  the  development of  self-compassion  might  help  avoid  some  of  the dangers of inflated self-esteem, such as arrogance and narcissism.

Exercise and Sport Settings

Although  there  are  numerous  psychological  and physical  benefits  to  exercise,  the  exercise  setting can  also  present  many  unique  challenges  related to  social  evaluations  and  comparisons  that  can influence women’s exercise behaviors. Hence, self-compassion  research  in  the  exercise  domain  has focused primarily on women’s experiences and has shown self-compassion to be related to a variety of motives to exercise and exercise-related outcomes. More  specifically,  self-compassion  is  positively related  to  intrinsic  motivations  to  exercise  (e.g., exercising for fun and enjoyment) and negatively related  to  extrinsic  forms  of  motivation  to  exercise  (e.g.,  exercising  because  of  pressure  from other people; or feeling like a failure for not exercising  for  a  while).  In  addition,  self-compassion is  negatively  related  to  various  exercise-related outcomes  that  rely  on  self-evaluative  processes, including  ego  goal  orientation  (i.e.,  striving  for exercise goals that depend on an evaluation of the self in relation to others, such as proving that one is  better  at  exercise  than  others),  social  physique anxiety  (SPA)  (i.e.,  concerns  over  other  people’s negative evaluations of one’s physique, figure, and body),  and  obligatory  exercise  (i.e.,  feeling  obligated  to  exercise,  even  if  that  exercise  results  in harm and diminishes well-being). Interviews with women  exercisers  have  also  revealed  that  there might  be  a  self-compassion  specific  to  the  body, requiring  an  appreciation  of  the  uniqueness  of one’s  body,  taking  ownership  and  care  of  one’s body,  and  engaging  in  less  social  comparison. Women exercisers have also spoken about the role that other people (e.g., family, friends, and training  partners)  can  play  in  helping  them  develop body self-compassion, particularly those who are nonjudgmental and accepting.

Similar  to  exercise,  sport  settings  can  present  many  evaluative  experiences  for  which  self-compassion    might  be  a  useful  personal  resource. Research   with   undergraduate   students   shows that  self-compassion  is  an  important  predictor  of anticipated  thoughts,  emotions,  and  behavioral reactions  when  people  are  asked  to  respond  to  a hypothetical scenario in which they are responsible for  losing  an  athletic  competition  for  their  team. For  example,  those  with  more  self-compassion are more likely to have thoughts like “everybody goofs up now and then” and react more calmly to being  responsible  for  losing  compared  to  people with  less  self-compassion.  In  addition,  more  self-compassion  ate people are less likely to experience negative  feelings  and  less  likely  to  have  thoughts like “I am such a loser” when responsible for losing a game for their team.

Research  with  young  women  athletes  has  also supported self-compassion as a potential resource that   acts   as   a   buffer   against   negative   emotions,  thoughts,  and  behaviors  that  rely  on  self-evaluation  processes.  More  specifically,  athletes high  in  self-compassion  are  less  likely  to  experience  a  tendency  toward  shame  yet  are  also  able to experience the shame-free component of guilt. This is important because shame is a particularly devastating self-conscious emotion that arises from a  negative  evaluation  of  the  entire  self,  whereas shame-free guilt allows one to engage in prosocial and reparative behaviors when one’s actions have not  lived  up  to  a  personal  standard  (e.g.,  making  excuses  for  missing  team  training  sessions). Among  women  athletes,  high  self-compassion  is also related to lower levels of SPA, as well as less body surveillance (e.g., thinking about one’s looks many  times  per  day),  body  shame  (e.g.,  feeling ashamed  about  not  having  one’s  desired  body), fear of failure, and fear of negative evaluation.

References:

  1. Berry, K.-A., Kowalski, K. C., Ferguson, L. J., & McHugh, T.-L. F. (2010). An empirical phenomenology of young adult women exercisers’ body self-compassion. Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, 2, 293–312.
  2. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887–904.
  3. Magnus, C. M. R., & Kowalski, K. C. (2010). The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise-related outcomes. Self and Identity, 9, 363–382.
  4. Mosewich, A. D., Kowalski, K. C., Sabiston, C. M., Sedgwick, W. A., & Tracy, J. L. (2011). Self-compassion : A potential resource for young women athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 103–123.
  5. Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101.
  6. Neff, K. D. (2009). Self-compassion. In M. R. Leary & R. H. Hoyle (Eds.), Handbook of individual differences in social behavior (pp. 561–573). New York: Guilford Press.

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