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.
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- Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101.
- 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.