Does too much self-compassion make a person lazy and self-indulgent? It seems sensible that self-compassion could help a person feel better, but couldn’t it also lead a person to, say, binge on Netflix and eat ice cream all day?
Research suggests that common worries about self-compassion leading to self-indulgence are not founded. In fact, self-compassion, which fundamentally involves extending to ourselves the same kindness and care that we offer loved ones, is linked to less procrastination and more motivation to master new skills.
But can changing a person’s level of self-compassion alter how they respond to situations? A team of researchers set out to investigate this by studying a group of people with rigid and restrained eating rules. Oftentimes, if a restrictive eater eats a “forbidden food,” they’ll feel guilty and overeat afterwards. (“Agh, I broke my rule by eating a Cheeto, may as well eat the whole bag”).
The researchers first split participants into two groups: one in which people ate a doughnut, and the other in which people did not. Then, the researchers told half of the people who ate a doughnut either to not to be too hard on themselves, because everyone eats unhealthy foods sometime (“self-compassion condition”), or to simply get started on another questionnaire (“control condition”). Afterwards, all participants completed a taste test in which they could eat as much, or as little, candy as they pleased.
Even though the self-compassion manipulation was only a few sentences long, it changed how people responded; after eating the doughnut, those in the self-compassion condition experienced less distress, and ate less candy than those in the control condition.
Taken together, this research suggests that self-compassion is helpful, not a hindrance, when facing setbacks. Far from being self-indulgent, self-compassion is both a kind and effective motivator.
Many people have spent years treating themselves with harsh self-criticism, and may have misconceptions about the nature of self-compassion, or may even be fearful of it. We recommend taking time to understand what expectations and beliefs clients have about self-compassion before launching in to self-compassion building exercises, such as lovingkindness meditations.