Every month, we scour the scientific literature for interesting studies that have practical implications for therapists working with shame, self-criticism, or compassion. Below are a few of our favorites for this month:
What is compassion?
The authors review existing literature on the definition and measurement of compassion to offer guidance on how we might best conceptualize and measure compassion. The results of this systematic review demonstrate lack of consensus on what compassion is. In addition, the authors found psychometric flaws in all existing measures of compassion. Based on the review of compassion definitions and measures, the authors propose a new definition of compassion including the following elements: 1) Recognizing suffering; 2) Understanding the universality of suffering in human experience; 3) Feeling empathy for the person suffering and connecting with the distress (emotional resonance); 4) Tolerating uncomfortable feelings aroused in response to the suffering person (e.g. distress, anger, fear) so remaining open to and accepting of the person suffering; and 5) Motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering. The authors propose the development of new, psychometrically sounds measures accounting for these five elements.
Take away: When you are thinking about your client’s ability to experience compassion you might consider the following five factors suggested in the article: Can they recognize suffering? Do they recognize that suffering is human? Do they feel empathy with the person who is suffering? Are they willing to feel uncomfortable feelings in order to remain open to the person who is suffering? Are they motivated to alleviate suffering? Do they tend to do all of these things with themselves when they are suffering?
Strauss, C., Taylor, B. L., Gu, J., Kuyken, W., Baer, R., Jones, F., & Cavanagh, K. (2016). What is Compassion and How Can We Measure it? A Review of Definitions and Measures. Clinical Psychology Review.
Fear of compassion interacts with self-criticism to affect depression
This study used multiple samples across multiple cultural contexts and multiple measures to assess the potential moderating effect of fear of compassion on the relationship between self-criticism and depression. Across the samples, there were main effects of both self-criticism and fear of compassion on depression. In addition, the authors found the expected interaction effect such that self-criticism and depression are positively related and that this relationship is heightened for people with higher fear of compassion. Results indicate that fear of compassion can exacerbate the impact of self-criticism and that low fear of compassion can buffer the effect of self-criticism.
Take away: Assessing and addressing fears relating to receiving compassion may be an important part of treating depression or preventing recurrence.
Hermanto, N., Zuroff, D. C., Kopala-Sibley, D. C., Kelly, A. C., Matos, M., Gilbert, P., & Koestner, R. (2016). Ability to receive compassion from others buffers the depressogenic effect of self-criticism: A cross-cultural multi-study analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 98, 324-332.
Self-compassion and attachment security increase willingness to engage in mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation has myriad positive physical and psychological health consequences, but not everyone is equally willing to engage in mindfulness meditation. The authors examined two variables that could potentially increase willingness to engage in mindfulness meditation: self-compassion and attachment security. They hypothesized that self-compassion would reduce critical thoughts about how well the person was doing at meditating, and that attachment security would increase feelings of vitality, thereby leading to increased willingness to meditate. Using a self-compassion writing prime, an attachment writing prime, and a neutral control prior to a mindfulness practice, the authors found that both self-compassion and attachment security primes increased self-reported willingness to engage in mindfulness meditation. They found that the way self-compassion works to affect willingness to engage is by increasing state mindfulness.. However, the way the authors thought the attachment prime would work was that it would affect vitality which would then affect willingness to engage. This is not what they found. Instead, either the attachment prime directly increased willingness, or the relationship was mediated by an unmeasured variable.
Take away: Focusing on your expression of warmth and kindness, or having clients do a self-compassion exercise when introducing mindfulness meditation may make it more likely that they will follow through on practice.
Rowe, A. C., Shepstone, L., Carnelley, K. B., Cavanagh, K., & Millings, A. (2016). Attachment Security and Self-compassion Priming Increase the Likelihood that First-time Engagers in Mindfulness Meditation Will Continue with Mindfulness Training. Mindfulness, 7(3), 642-650.