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Show Yourself Some Love: The Surprising Power of Self-Compassion

Scientists have discovered an amazingly simple way to get through tough times, deepen relationships, and feel happier every day: Try a little tenderness -- toward yourself.

self love hand mirror
Photography by: Chelsea Cavanaugh
We may crash when we fail, but those of us who are kind to ourselves bounce back more quickly.

Life serves up an endless stream of challenges, from daily nuisances to serious setbacks. But how you react when you make a mistake at work, gain a few pounds, or snap at your kids impacts your well-being more than you realize. A growing body of research shows that people who respond with self-compassion rather than self-criticism maintain healthier emotional equilibrium and weather hardships better than those who don’t. When we soothe ourselves, we trigger the flow of oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone also released when mothers nurse their babies, says University of Texas at Austin associate professor of educational psychology Kristin Neff. “All primates feel safe in the presence of a gentle touch or voice. When you give that to yourself, by putting your hand on your heart or speaking to yourself in a warm tone, your body actually responds.” Sound too woo-woo to be true? Here are five reasons to be kinder to yourself, starting today.

self love cup of tea heart
Photography by: Chelsea Cavanaugh
“Self-compassion allows you to support yourself when your mind is full of worries,” Neff says.

IT’S AN ALL-NATURAL MOOD ENHANCER

For decades, educators and policy makers have touted high self-esteem as the key to well-being. But new research suggests that how we treat ourselves predicts happiness and success in a more stable way than how we rate ourselves. People who comfort themselves and don’t suppress their pain consistently report fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has found that people who respond to difficulties with the same concern they’d show a loved one -- which can be as simple as telling yourself, “Yes, this is hard, but it’s a normal part of life” -- have fewer negative, self- critical thoughts than people who are less forgiving. “When you can regard your screwups and suffering as something zillions of other people experience, you don’t take it so personally or get so defensive,” Leary says. “It takes the edge off.”

 

IT BUILDS UP RESILIENCE

People often confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence and complacency (translation: giving up when the going gets tough). But a 2011 University of California, Berkeley study found that students who had performed worse than they’d expected on an exam were motivated to study harder and got higher grades on a follow-up exam if they wrote themselves a consoling letter. (Students who didn’t scored no better on the second test.) The idea applies to emotional stumbling blocks, too. University of Arizona psychologists reported in the journal Psychological Science in 2012 that among a cohort of 109 newly divorced people tracked for nine months, women and men who were high in self-compassion reported less divorce-related distress. (High self-esteem, mean- while, provided no such buffer.)

 

IT MAKES AGING EASIER

While some elderly people get frustrated with themselves when they have memory lapses or face physical limitations, those who respond kindly to their cognitive slips (or walking canes) are more likely to take aging in stride, Leary has found. They even describe themselves as highly satisfied with their lives despite the limitations.

 

IT BOOSTS OUR PHYSICAL HEALTH

Anyone try- ing to maintain healthy eating or exercise habits is familiar with this cycle: You eat an usually rich meal or miss a morning run. You chastise yourself, which makes you feel ashamed and hopeless, which leads to more backsliding— and maybe another cookie. (Researchers even have a name for this emotional loop: the “what the hell?” effect.) Next time, try saying to yourself, “Don’t worry about it -- you’ll get back on track” -- and moving on. Research shows that self-kindness helps people stay motivated to eat healthier, continue working toward exercise goals, quit smoking, and even seek medical care for conditions earlier. And a small study released last year found that a group of diabetes patients who were trained to practice self-compassion not only felt less distressed about their condition, but also reduced their blood-sugar levels, compared with a control group of patients who were wait-listed for the training.

 

IT ENRICHES OUR RELATIONSHIPS

Finally, there’s loads of lovely evidence that being a better friend to yourself makes you a better friend to others. The University of California, Berkeley team found that students who felt guilty about treating another person badly -- lying to a romantic partner, saying something cruel -- were more likely to apologize and mend the rift after they’d written themselves a letter about the episode from the perspective of a caring friend.

Therapist and author Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., experienced this firsthand. Feeling ashamed after she’d treated a colleague and good friend insensitively, Brach sat down to contemplate the “most young and vulnerable” part of herself and figure out “what she most needed from me. Quite spontaneously, I put my hand on my heart and whispered, ‘It’s okay, sweetheart.’ And immediately I had a feeling of warmth and tenderness.” Brach then called her friend with a heartfelt apology. “Far from letting me off the hook,” she says, “self-compassion made me more responsible. Ultimately, it frees us to live and love without holding back.”

 

[TRY THIS: Treat Yourself to an (Almost) Professional At-Home Spa]
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