Take Care of Yourself

August 1, 2007

Why do some people roll with life's punches, facing failures and problems with grace, while others dwell on calamities, criticize themselves, and exaggerate problems?

The answer, according to researchers from Duke and Wake Forest universities, may be something called "self-compassion"-the ability to treat oneself kindly when things go badly. The results of their research, one of the first major investigations of self-compassion, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Life's tough enough with little things that happen. Self-compassion helps to eliminate a lot of the anger, depression, and pain we experience when things go badly for us," says Mark R. Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the paper.

Many cognitive-behavioral approaches focus on increasing self-esteem, Leary says. But, "If people learn only to feel better about themselves but continue to beat themselves up when they fail or make mistakes, they will be unable to cope non-defensively with their difficulties."

The researchers conducted five studies to investigate the cognitive and emotional processes by which self-compassionate people deal with unpleasant life events. The experiments involved measuring participants' reactions to recalling actual negative experiences, imagining negative scenarios, receiving unflattering feedback from another person, comparing their evaluations of themselves doing a task and someone else doing the same task, and measuring reactions of participants who were prompted to have a self-compassionate attitude.

In three of the experiments, researchers also compared reactions of people with differing levels of self-compassion with people with differing levels of self-esteem. The findings suggest that fostering a sense of self-compassion may have particularly beneficial effects for people with low self-esteem, the researchers say.