Self-Compassion Can Help You Feel More Like Yourself
You’ve probably been told: “Don’t change who you are, just be yourself.” Research suggests that is good advice. When we feel like we’re being our authentic true self, our mental health flourishes. So why aren’t we our true selves more often? Well, research suggests that we hide our true selves because we worry about what other people will think of our true selves and even worry about whether our true selves are good enough.
My colleagues and I wondered if self-compassion could help people show their true selveshelp us “be ourselves.” Self-compassion involves giving yourself the same kindness and care that you would give to a person who you care about—the same way you would say to someone “It’s okay, I know you’re upset, but things like this happen to everyone.” or “Hey listen, just stay calm. You can’t turn back what happened, just try to accept it.” Self-compassion involves saying these kinds of things to yourself.
We conducted a series of studies with people from different cultures in which we discovered that self-compassion cultivates authenticity by minimizing people’s negative thoughts and self-doubts. In an initial study, we had research participants complete a short survey every day for one week. This daily survey asked them to rate their levels of self-compassion (“Today, I showed caring, understanding, and kindness toward myself”) and authenticity (“Today, I felt authentic and genuine in my interactions with others”) on that particular day. We found that daily variations in how self-compassionate people reported being were closely linked to daily variations in how authentic they felt. Put it another way, if you are self-compassionate today, you are also likely to feel more authentic today.
These findings were strengthened by evidence from a study in which we asked participants to think of a personal weakness they had, and then to respond to that weakness from a self-compassionate perspective, a self-esteem-boosting perspective (for example, by writing about how worthy they are as a person), or neither. Immediately afterward, they completed measures of how authentic they felt. Participants who were instructed to be self-compassionate about their weakness reported significantly higher authenticity than participants in the other two conditions—a clear indication that self-compassion caused people to feel more authentic.
What’s happening here? Why does self-compassion appear to boost authenticity? We conducted two more studies across several cultures—such as Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, and the United States—and found evidence that self-compassion lowers people’s fears about social disapproval and elevates optimism, both of which pave the way for greater authenticity. In a nutshell, self-compassion cultivates authenticity by reducing social and evaluative anxieties and helping people remain positive.
Fostering self-compassion is not complicated or difficult. It’s a skill that can be learned and enhanced. I suggest using psychologists’ definition of self-compassion as a three-point checklist: Am I being kind and understanding to myself? Do I acknowledge my shortcomings and failures as experiences shared by everyone? Am I keeping my negative feelings in perspective? If you fall short on this checklist, a simple “trick” can also help: sit down and write yourself a letter in the third person, as if you were a friend or loved one, about your own struggles. Many of us are better at being a good friend to other people than to ourselves, so this can help avoid spirals of defensiveness or self-flagellation.
Of course, being authentic is not always a great idea. For example, imagine that you disagree with your supervisor’s decision during a team meeting. You would feel authentic if you expressed your opinion at that moment. But, it may also be seen by your supervisor as a challenge to his or her authority in front of other employees. In such a situation, the potential costs of being authentic likely outweigh any benefits of ‘being yourself.” In future research, we plan to determine whether self-compassion promotes authenticity without consideration of the circumstances or whether self-compassion enhances a more thoughtful and regulated form of authenticity.
For Further Reading:
Zhang, J. W., Chen, S., Tomova, T. K., Bilgin, B., Chai, W. J., Ramis, T., … & Manukyan, A. (2019). A compassionate self is a true self? Self-compassion promotes subjective authenticity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167218820914
Zhang, J. W., & Chen, S. (2016). Self-compassion promotes personal improvement from regret experiences via acceptance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42, 244-258. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167215623271.
Zhang, J. W., Chen, S., & Tomova, T. K. (2019). From Me to You: Self-Compassion Predicts Acceptance of Own and Others’ Imperfections. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167219853846.
Jia Wei Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at The University of Memphis. He studies the intrapersonal and interpersonal impact of self-compassion, awe, social hierarchy, consumption, and well-being.
Serena Chen is Professor of Psychology and the Marian E. and Daniel E. Koshland, Jr. Distinguished Chair for Innovative Teaching and Research at the University of California, Berkeley. She studies the social bases of the self and identity and the impact of possessing or lacking power on cognition, motivation, and behavior.