Valentine’s Day may be commercialized and over-hyped. For some it’s an obligatory gift-giving day, for others it’s a reminder of a broken heart or an unclear relationship status. But for those who do choose to celebrate, the holiday is an occasion to recognize love in all its forms.
This Valentine’s week, we’re exploring love in the context of the relationships we have with ourselves. Like other types of love, self-love is an action we practice and develop, one cultivated through self-compassion. And self-compassion bestows physical and mental health benefits worth celebrating in this season of love and beyond.
Simply put, self-compassion is the ability to show love, understanding, and acceptance to ourselves. It asks that we turn inward the care we typically reserve for others; we treat ourselves as we would treat a close friend.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff describes self-compassion as having three key elements: common humanity, mindfulness, and self-kindness.
Many of us could find countless ways to complete the sentence, “I’ll be happy when. . .”. Once I’m in a relationship. If I get a promotion. After I move to a different city or buy that house or take that vacation. Too often we view happiness as conditional—something we achieve through external events and goods. If and when we attain these things, we think, then we’ll be happy.
Though these conditions may positively impact our lives, no external factor will truly determine our happiness. We need to look inward for that.
It’s neither easy nor always comfortable, but happiness is largely a decision. It’s a choice we consistently practice making, a process informed by inner work. And self-compassion offers an approach to this work. Research shows that those who show themselves compassion are happier than those who do not.
Self-compassion also influences the way we handle life’s challenges and see ourselves in relation to them. When we treat ourselves more kindly, we respond to stressful or upsetting events more flexibly. We develop resilience as we develop self-compassion.
In helping us recover from setbacks, self-compassion also triggers a “growth mindset” in us. With a growth mindset instead of a “fixed” one, people are more likely to embrace challenges, learn from feedback, and further develop their talents and potential.
Our “no pain, no gain” culture often views self-inflicted stress and struggle as effective motivators. We beat ourselves up in the hustle of work, school, and life, fearful we’ll become slackers if we go easy on ourselves. According to Neff, the biggest barrier to self-compassion is the fear that it leads to laziness, complacency, and self-indulgence. We associate self-love with being “soft,” weak, and less ambitious and therefore try to drive ourselves with harsh judgment and self-criticism instead.
Interestingly, research shows that self-compassion is a greater personal motivator than self-criticism. People with higher levels of self-compassion typically have greater motivation to work toward their goals. They’re more interested in finding ways to improve, investing energy in that pursuit rather than the defensiveness, anxiety, and social comparison that ultimately lead to decreased motivation.
Self-compassion is also correlated with better physical and mental health. Studies link it to better immune function, stabilized glucose levels in people with diabetes, and improved relaxation. One study found that self-compassion exercises induced higher parasympathetic activity in its participants, promoting stress reduction and emotion regulation on a physiological level.
Studies have also associated lower levels of self-compassion with mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Not surprisingly, most individuals with eating disorders lack self-compassion. Self-criticism is often at the core of behaviors across the spectrum of eating disorders, and self-compassion is introduced as its antidote in recovery.
If your relationship with food or your body makes self-compassion difficult, please consider connecting with The Emily Program. To reach out on behalf of a patient, give us a call today at 1-888-364-5977 or complete our online referral form.
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