What helps individual African Americans stay resilient in the face of racism? Veronica Womack of Northwestern University and her colleagues put one technique to the test: self-compassion, which is the ability to speak warmly and kindly to yourself even when you’re having a hard time. Their results unexpectedly show the limits of self-compassion as a tool for resisting the psychological impact of discrimination.
In their study, they surveyed 133 Black students at Spelman College, where coauthor Natalie Watson-Singleton is a faculty member. The researchers asked students about how often they’d experienced racism over the last year and how stressful those experiences were. Those experiences of racism could be overt or subtle, including things like having race-related conflict, witnessing another person being discriminated against, living or working in a racially hostile environment, or being expected to behave a stereotypical way because of race.
Then, the researchers asked students how much they agreed with statements like “I try to be understanding and patient towards those aspects of my personality I don’t like”; “I try to see my failings as part of the human condition”; and “When something painful happens I try to take a balanced view of the situation”—all of which are thought to indicate the three key traits of self-compassion: self-kindness, connection to common humanity, and mindfulness.
“Self-coldness” is the opposite of self-compassion. Levels of self-coldness were measured by how much students agreed with statements like “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies,” which measured self-judgment; “When I fail at something that’s important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure,” which reflected feelings of isolation; and “When I’m feeling down I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong,” which suggested their taking criticism too much to heart.
Lastly, the students reported on how distressed they were, in general, and if they had any negative psychological symptoms, like depression and anxiety. Then, the researchers analyzed the data to see whether being more self-compassionate or more self-cold affected how experiences of racism affected mental health.
Their results showed that when students were more self-judging, they suffered greater detrimental psychological effects from racist encounters. However, levels of self-compassion and the other factors related to self-coldness (isolation and self-identification with criticism) did not seem to be relevant to students’ psychological health.
The fact that self-judgment stood out as a major problem does not surprise Womack: If Black people think racism is somehow under their personal control—that, if only they changed, they wouldn’t experience discrimination—it’s likely to harm them, she says.
“If we don’t have a level of sociopolitical knowledge to contextualize our experiences, it could be dangerous for how we view ourselves and, subsequently, our psychological well-being,” she says.
She points to the ways African Americans sometimes try to cope with racism by changing their own behavior, such as engaging in code-switching (changing how they talk to please an audience) or identity-shifting (embracing a more Western, Eurocentric worldview and appearance to avoid stereotyping). She suggests that blaming oneself and trying to act differently to stave off negative encounters can become a way of life, making people feel inauthentic, stressed out, and exhausted.
Plus, it misses the point: Racism is not the target person’s fault, says Womack.
“Thinking that it’s something about me, maybe there’s something that I can change about myself so that I don’t encounter this anymore, can end up really having some deleterious impacts on your psychological wellness,” says Womack. “In the end, it’s not really about you. You didn’t create this situation.”
Why didn’t feeling more isolated or overidentifying with criticism translate into greater psychological distress? Womack doesn’t know for sure. She speculates that perhaps isolating yourself or focusing more on a racist encounter might be an attempt to protect you from feeling bad, by removing yourself from harm’s way or providing a greater sense of personal agency.
“We all want to do as much as we can to keep things within our control so that we aren’t undermined, discounted, or not valued,” she says.
However, says Womack, believing you can prevent racism if you only worked harder and developed some grit and perseverance is a form of what researchers call “John Henryism”—trying to prove someone wrong about their judgments of you by pushing yourself to the limit.
Womack mentions her coauthor Watson-Singleton’s research on the hidden costs of Black women adopting a “strong black woman” identity. While sometimes helpful, it can cause them to experience less emotional support from others and greater depression, too.
“The attitude that nobody can get me down ends up being really taxing, because you’re fighting something that’s not based on an individual’s ability to overcome,” says Womack. “Don’t forget what happened to John Henry. He dropped dead.”
On the other hand, Womack’s study didn’t show that being more self-compassionate reduced psychological harm in response to racism—meaning, self-compassion was not protective. This surprised her, as past research has shown self-compassion can be helpful in facing adversity, even racism, and could be a useful intervention for students.
She suspects that the tendency to be self-compassionate just wasn’t strong enough to overcome the harshness of self-judgment—at least for these college students. Current self-compassion practices may need to be tweaked to be more relevant and helpful to Black students by addressing the pervasiveness of racism and the specific ways that self-judgment comes into play.
“We may have to focus on framing, because any intervention we do needs to acknowledge some of the harsh messaging that we’ve internalized, that we believe will be the answer to overcoming racism,” she says. “It’s very important that these interventions incorporate a level of socio-cultural awareness.”
Womack hopes that by highlighting the damaging effects of self-judgment on well-being, she and her colleagues might encourage people to let go of self-coldness and embrace self-kindness instead. She’d like to see changes in how self-compassion practices are used within Black communities, to better address their needs.
In the meantime, she hopes her work will inspire some people to rethink their reaction to racism.
“If anyone reads the article and says to themselves, ‘Wow, I’ve been really harsh to myself around incidents that were not my fault, and I’m not going to fall into that trap anymore,’ that would be a good result,” she says. “Knowledge is power.”