Sometimes the study of human behavior appears to yield “new findings” that most people feel like they already know. For an example of this, consider a report published last winter by three German psychologists, which examined 79 studies — including responses from more than 16,000 study volunteers from across the globe — on the link between self-compassion and well-being, and reached this conclusion: People who are kinder to themselves also tend to be happier.
It seems, at first, almost painfully obvious. But the study of self-compassion turns out to be a rather interesting one, as scientists define the term a little differently than you or I might. There are, write the researchers, three elements that make up self-compassion, including self-kindness, which is “an understanding behavior toward oneself in the face of suffering.” That one is kind of self-explanatory. But there is also mindfulness, which in this context refers to “the balanced awareness of negative thoughts and feelings rather than their overidentification.” Self-compassionate people, the scientific literature suggests, are able to separate themselves from their failures; sometimes, the things you try just don’t work out, but just because the thing failed does not necessarily make you a failure.
But the third piece of self-compassion is especially interesting: It’s something the researchers call “common humanity,” which they describe as “the perception and classification of one’s experiences as part of mankind rather than an interpretation that is separate from others.” It’s placing less emphasis on your own uniqueness, and realizing that you are but one piece of a larger puzzle. In that same line of thinking, their research suggests that self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem; in fact, overreliance on one’s self-esteem seems to dampen the positive effects self-compassion has on a person’s sense of well-being, the studies reviewed here show.
More on that:
Self esteem relies more on global positive self-evaluations and often is based on comparisons with other people in order to increase one’s perceived self-worth. By comparison, self-compassion works in quite the opposite way. It is not strictly based on self-evaluations and comparison with others, but is rather based on interconnection and the awareness of being part of mankind, as well as on the awareness that failure and setbacks are part of normal life.
Self-compassion is a relatively new entry into the study of personality, the meta-analysis authors note, and thus — typical caveat here — more research is needed. But for now, the message seems to be this: Being kind to yourself matters.