September 2016 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:

Fear of Self-Compassion Predicts Functioning After Childhood Sexual Abuse

Some individuals, especially those high in self-criticism, are fearful of extending kindness and warmth toward themselves, a phenomenon known as “fear of self-compassion.” This study explored whether survivors of sexual abuse are more fearful of self-compassion, and whether this fear is related to poor psychological functioning. Three hundred and seventy-seven college students completed measures of self-compassion, fears of self-compassion, childhood trauma, and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. Childhood sexual abuse led to PTSD and depression, and models indicated that this was because childhood sexual assault survivors tended to be more afraid of self-compassion. Interestingly, fears of self-compassion, but not self-compassion itself, appeared to be responsible for the relationship between childhood sexual abuse and PTSD/depression. This suggests that fears of self-compassion may be more important than self-compassion itself in determining whether PTSD and depression follow childhood abuse.

Take away: When working with survivors of childhood sexual abuse, understand that survivors might be resistant or fearful of self-compassion. This paper suggests that helping individuals understand, normalize, and potentially overcome their fear of self-compassion may help improve symptoms of PTSD and depression.

Read more:
Miron, L. R., Seligowski, A. V., Boykin, D. M., & Orcutt, H. K. (2016). The Potential Indirect Effect of Childhood Abuse on Posttrauma Pathology Through Self-Compassion and Fear of Self-CompassionMindfulness7(3), 596-605.


Self-Compassion May Improve Body Image for Overly Perfectionistic People

This research examined the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism (i.e. perfectionism characterized by unrealistically high standards and resulting disappointment), self-compassion, and body image satisfaction among U.S. college women. In Study 1, 580 female undergraduates completed measures of maladaptive perfectionism, body image satisfaction, and self-compassion. In Study 2, 298 female undergraduates additionally completed a measure of disordered eating behaviors. Across both studies, the researchers found that self-compassion helped people with maladaptive perfectionism feel satisfied with their bodies. The self-judgment component of self-compassion was most strongly linked to positive body image. Inconsistent with the authors’ hypothesis, overall self-compassion scores were not significantly related to disordered eating behaviors. Only self-judgment, and not self-kindness, was related to disordered eating.

Take away: Self-compassion and defusion work related to negative self-evaluation may be particularly important in relation to perfectionism around body image.

Read more:
Barnett, M. D., & Sharp, K. J. (2016). Maladaptive perfectionism, body image satisfaction, and disordered eating behaviors among US college women: The mediating role of self-compassionPersonality and Individual Differences99, 225-234.


Self-compassion Training Reduces Stress Following Social Threat

This study investigated whether brief (45 minutes over 5 days) training in self-compassion could help protect people against stress arising from social evaluation. Undergraduate women were assigned to one of three groups: self-compassion training, attention (placebo) control, or no intervention. Women in the self-compassion training group listened to recordings of meditations focused on cultivating kindness and self-acceptance. Women in the attention control group listened to recordings from a psychology textbook chapter. Then, all participants prepared and performed a speech task that has been shown to be highly stressful as it is performed in front of a panel of completely unresponsive judges (the “Trier Social Stress Test”). Compared to women in the attention control and no intervention groups, those who received self-compassion training reported less anxiety and showed fewer physiological stress responses following the stressor.

Take away: This study suggests that self-compassion can be particularly helpful if practiced right before social events that are expected to be stressful. You can encourage clients to practice brief self-compassion meditations or lovingkindess meditation in the minutes or hours before known social stressors, such as interviews, performances, difficult conversations, or spending time with unfamiliar people. An example might be the self-compassion break by Kristin Neff, or a lovingkindness meditation, like we’ve outlined. However, keep in mind that this was a non-clinical sample, and that self-compassion exercises may sometimes be threatening in high self-critics, who may need more preparatory work to benefit from self-compassion exercises.

Read more:
Arch, J. J., Brown, K. W., Dean, D. J., Landy, L. N., Brown, K. D., & Laudenslager, M. L. (2014). Self-compassion training modulates alpha-amylase, heart rate variability, and subjective responses to social evaluative threat in women. Psychoneuroendocrinology42, 49-58.

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