WHAT IS SELF-COMPASSION? AND HOW COULD YOU BE TEACHING IT?

Rhiannon McGee

Article - Self-compassion

A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of moments like these can change the course of your life. 

(Germer, 2009)

There is growing research to support the wellbeing benefits of self-compassion. Studies have found that self-compassion softens the impact of negative events in our lives and that self-compassionate people are more resilient in the face of setbacks or failures. More specifically, self-compassion has been correlated with reduced rumination, depression and anxiety, increased life satisfaction, social connectedness, motivation, emotional intelligence, happiness, optimism, wisdom, creativity, curiosity and personal initiative (Barnard & Curry, 2011). Recent studies indicate that these benefits are also experienced by adolescents (Bluth, et al., 2015; Marshall et al, 2015). What is most encouraging is the emerging evidence to indicate that the self-compassion can also be cultivated with practice. This evidence provides strong justification for placing self-compassion practices in the broader wellbeing curriculum offered in schools.

What is self-compassion?

Kristen Neff (2003) has defined self-compassion as being comprised of three components:

Self-kindness: being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of the pain of failure, rather than being harshly self-critical.

Common humanity: perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience, rather than seeing them as separating and isolating.

Mindfulness: holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.

Self-compassion is not the same as self-esteem, which involves judgments and downward comparisons and can be associated with negative psychological outcomes. Instead, self-compassion involves an acceptance of one’s own shortcomings and understanding that these are a part of what it is to be human. Self-compassion can be seen as the foundation of compassion for others and thus, can also enhance interpersonal connection. 

Why teach adolescents the skills of self-compassion?

Adolescence is a time which is characterized by challenges and changes. It is also a time of life in which it is normal for young people to experience increased levels of self-consciousness and self-scrutiny which can contribute to a decrease in overall wellbeing (Howell, Keyes & Passmore, 2013; McGorry et al, 2014). It is at this stage of development that cultivating self-compassion as an alternative to self-criticism can be particularly beneficial for adolescents. Self-compassion acts as a buffer which helps protect adolescents from social stressors, and moderates the impact of low self-esteem on mental health (Neff & McGehee, 2010; Bluth and Blanton, 2014; Bluth et al, 2015; Marshall et al, 2015). Research also indicates that females are lower in self-compassion than males in late adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, it is proposed that girls, in particular, may benefit from engaging in practices which cultivate self-compassion (Neff 2003b; Bluth & Blanton, 2014).  

How can self-compassion be learned by our students?

For educators interested in exploring evidence-based programs which focus on teaching the explicit skills of self-compassion to teenagers, we recommend starting with Karen Bluth’s, Making Friends with Yourself: A Mindful Self-Compassion Program for Teens (MFY). This program has been adapted from Neff & Germer’s Mindful Self Compassion Program and incorporates meditations and self-compassion practices which can be used in daily life. The MFY program has been found to enhance self-compassion and life satisfaction and significantly decrease depression in adolescents. The study also showed trends for greater mindfulness, social connectedness and lower anxiety (Bluth et al, 2015).     

Whilst it may not be possible for many schools to introduce a formal self-compassion programs, a number of the key activities and meditations from these programs have been made available online. Bluth has published a selection of exercises and meditations from the MFWY here: http://www.mindfulselfcompassionforteens.com/meditations

The Australian organisation, Smiling Mind, also has developed a number of age-appropriate meditations which focus on self-compassion and which can be used in the classroom environment: https://smilingmind.com.au

Finally, Hayes & Ciarrochi (2015) have published an excellent resource for educators, The Thriving Adolescent, which incorporates a range of activities designed to build self-compassion. 

The prevalence of mental ill health in youths and adults, combined with the emerging evidence for the benefits of mindfulness and self-compassion for both populations, should encourage educators to consider whether their students or they themselves, might benefit from these skills and practices. 

To see references for this blog post click here - References - Self-compassion