Psychologist finds self-compassion helps people cope with failure

By Cheryl Walker
Aug. 22, 2005

High self-esteem may not be as important as high self-compassion in coping with negative life events, according to research by Wake Forest University psychologist Mark Leary.

"Although Western society has emphasized the importance of high self-esteem, the more important thing may be to have self-compassion, the ability to treat oneself kindly in the face of failure, rejection, defeat and other negative events," Leary said.

Mark Leary, psychologist

Leary conducted three studies that consistently showed self-compassion is beneficial in helping people cope with negative events in ways that are often different from and better than high self-esteem.

He presented his findings at a meeting of the American Psychological Association Aug. 20.

Self-compassion and self-esteem are related, said Leary, who has written 11 books on social psychology topics, including "The Curse of the Self: Self-awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life."

"Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness you would show a friend whether you feel good about yourself or not," he said. "Self-esteem is simply feeling good about yourself."

The first study presented male and female college students with three imaginary situations: failing an important test, losing an athletic competition for a team and forgetting a part during a performance.

He measured how they thought they would respond to each situation. The students who scored the highest on the self-compassion scale experienced fewer negative feelings when imagining the distressing social events than those who had high self-esteem.

Leary found those with higher self-compassion were more likely to think "Everybody goofs up now and then" and less likely to think "I am such a loser" or "I wish I could die" in response to each scenario.

In a second study, a group of college students received either flattering or unflattering feedback after introducing themselves via video camera to an observer.

Leary found that the participants rated higher in self-compassion reported being happier and less angry than participants lower in self-compassion when they received unflattering responses.

"Self-compassion may buffer people against negative events and engender positive self-feelings without the negative features that are sometimes associated with high self-esteem such as defensiveness and a sense of entitlement," Leary said.

In the third study, Leary tried to increase self-compassion by using a series of exercises. First, the participants were asked to write about a negative event that they experienced in high school or college that made them feel badly about themselves. Leary asked them to list ways in which other people also experience similar events, write a paragraph expressing understanding, kindness and concern to themselves in the same way that they might write a letter to a friend who had undergone the experience, and describe the event in an objective and unemotional fashion.

"Study three demonstrated that a self-compassionate perspective can be induced and that this mindset can have positive cognitive and emotional effects, at least in the short term," Leary wrote in the paper, "Adaptive Self evaluations: Self-compassion vs. Self-esteem," co-authored with Wake Forest graduate students Claire Adams and Eleanor Tate.

Concerned that self-compassion may lead people to avoid taking responsibility for their problems, Leary also studied how the research participants explained the negative events they experienced.

"Highly self-compassionate people actually took more responsibility for their shortcomings and problems," he said. "Because they didn't beat themselves up when things went badly for them, they were able to admit their mistakes."

Some of the positive responses to failure and rejection credited in the past to higher self-esteem may really be due to self-compassion, Leary suggests. As he continues to evaluate the role of self-compassion separate from self-esteem, Leary sees possible future applications of the research.

"A self-compassionate mindset may be particularly beneficial for people with low self-esteem," Leary said. "The results suggest that fostering a self-compassionate mindset might be useful in clinical settings with clients who are excessively self-focused."

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