July 2015 Shame and Self-compassion Research Update

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:

Meta-Analysis of Gender Differences in Self-Compassion

For this study, the authors looked at gender difference effect sizes in 71 journal articles and dissertations examining self-compassion. Overall, men experienced more self-compassion than women, but the difference was small. The difference was more pronounced in samples with more ethnic minorities. 

Take away: Although the difference is small, women, on average, may have lower self-compassion than men.  

Read more: 
Yarnell, L. M., Stafford, R. E., Neff, K. D., Reilly, E. D., Knox, M. C., & Mullarkey, M. (2015). Meta-Analysis of Gender Differences in Self-CompassionSelf and Identity, (ahead-of-print), 1-22.


Interplay between Physical Warmth and Emotional Warmth

This is a collection of several studies examining the relationship between physical warmth and emotional warmth. In these studies, the authors demonstrate 1) across two samples, people who reported more loneliness also reported taking longer baths and showers of higher temperature than people who are less lonely and in one sample lonelier people reported more frequent baths and showers as well, 2) people given a cold pack to hold rated themselves as significantly lonelier than people given a warm pack to hold, 3) following perceived social rejection, feelings of social coldness were significantly reduced by holding a warm pack, and 4) people are not explicitly aware of their tendency to use physical warmth as a substitute for social warmth.

Take away: This interesting line of research has implications for how we may go about engaging the warmth/soothing system in our clients. Being able to engage feelings of social warmth through physical warmth may be particularly useful when beginning self-compassion work with people who have no relational models for compassion, or for whom compassion elicits strong fear or shame.

Read more: 
Bargh, J. A., & Shalev, I. (2012). The substitutability of physical and social warmth in daily lifeEmotion12(1), 154.


Shame Can Motivate Both Approach and Avoidance Behavior Depending Upon Context

In this study, the authors investigated why some research finds shame to motivate approach behavior (e.g., repair a relationship) whereas other research finds shame to motivate avoidance behavior (e.g., withdraw). To assess this question, they asked participants either reflect on a shame experience or a neutral experience, and then asked them to choose whether they wanted to engage in a performance task involving evaluation or an opinion task. They then assessed what motivated their choice of task; whether they wanted to restore their positive self-view, or protect themselves. They then told participants that one of the tasks was easy and the other was difficult and asked them to select one based on that information, and then again asked them to rate motivation for the choice. What they found was that, at first, shame seemed to motivate approach behavior aimed at repairing the self. Then, when approach became too risky, shame motivated self-protection and the approach motive declined.

Take away: Shame may sometimes motivate people to engage in valued action when the action to repair a sense of self isn’t perceive as too difficult or risky. However, when taking action becomes too risky, self-protection and avoidance of painful feelings of shame may be more likely.

Read more: 
De Hooge, I. E., Zeelenberg, M., & Breugelmans, S. M. (2011). A functionalist account of shame-induced behaviourCognition & emotion25(5), 939-946.

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