In countries, such as the USA, the “Golden Rule” (“treat others how you want to be treated”) is a common maxim. Yet, this rule is seldom accompanied by advice on how people should treat themselves. This may reflect how compassion is typically conceptualized in America—be kind to others, but not necessarily to oneself.
In countries influenced by Theravada Buddhism, such as Thailand, people may conceptualize compassion as inherently including the self. From a Buddhist perspective, for example, the self is inseparable from others, and so compassion for the self is inseparable from compassion for others.
Confucianism may also influence peoples’ conceptualizations of how they should treat themselves. Confucian values emphasize various factors involved in maintaining group harmony, such as humility, ‘saving face’ (avoiding loss of dignity and humiliation), respect for hierarchy, and reciprocity. In countries influenced by Confucian philosophy, shame may play an important role in maintaining social order. For example, Taiwanese parents often use shame to teach their children morality and motivate them to fix wrongs.
These cultural influences appear to influence peoples’ levels of self-compassion. For example, researchers assessed the self-compassion levels of undergraduates in America, Thailand and Taiwan, and found that Thai participants had the highest levels of self-compassion, whereas Taiwanese participants had the lowest levels of self-compassion. This may reflect how self-compassion is valued from a Buddhist perspective, how shaming and criticizing are considered important parts of socializing from a Confucian perspective, and how self-compassion is neither emphasized nor de-emphasized from an Anglo-American perspective. Importantly, for participants in all countries, self-compassion was linked to more life satisfaction and less depression.
This research underscores how it’s important to consider what messages clients may have received about self-compassion. These messages may come from their culture or family. Understanding peoples’ unique attitudes towards self-compassion may be helpful in determining how best to incorporate self-compassion into therapy or a client’s lifestyle.