I’m probably not alone when I say that I sometimes balk at the idea of self-compassion. I know that researchers have linked it to many positive outcomes, like less stress, increased well-being, and improved relationships. But I find the idea of directing kindness, understanding, and forgiveness toward myself to be a dubious proposition. Isn’t self-compassion just a way of letting yourself off the hook when you did something hurtful or unethical?
Actually, it appears that the opposite may be true.
In a recently published study, researchers in China looked at how self-compassion relates to how people judge their own moral transgressions. Chinese university students imagined themselves engaging in morally wrong behavior—like breaking traffic rules, keeping money from a found wallet, or plagiarizing for a test—and then rated how acceptable the behavior was on a scale of 1-9.
The students also filled out a self-compassion questionnaire that measured how much they respond to perceived flaws in themselves by being kind to themselves (versus self-judging), by recognizing that everyone is flawed (versus feeling isolated or alone), and by being mindful and accepting of their flaws (versus over-identifying with them).
Analyzing the results, the researchers found that the more self-compassionate the students were, the less acceptable they rated the moral transgressions. However, since this study involved a hypothetical scenario and couldn’t prove that self-compassion leads to higher moral standards, the researchers conducted a second, experimental study to further investigate the connection.
Participants (primarily Americans) were asked to choose between one of two tasks—either an easy, fun one or a difficult, boring one—after being told the other task would be assigned to an unknown fellow participant. Those who chose the easier task for themselves were then selected to continue with the study.
These participants were randomly assigned to either a self-compassion practice, in which they identified a weakness of theirs and wrote about it in a caring, compassionate, understanding way, or to a control practice, in which they wrote about a hobby. Afterward, they reported their mood (positive or negative), as well as their levels of anger, guilt, and envy—emotions that have been found to impact moral judgment.
The participants then rated how fair and acceptable it was for them to have assigned themselves the easier task in the first part of the experiment. The researchers found that those in the self-compassion group saw their selfish behavior as significantly less acceptable than those in the control group. Mood and other emotions had no impact on the relationship between self-compassion and moral self-evaluation.
Again, self-compassion seemed to increase rather than decrease people’s willingness to take responsibility for misbehavior. “Our findings demonstrate that higher self-compassionate people endorse harsher moral judgment of themselves and accept their own moral violations less,” the authors write.
Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff, from the University of Texas, Austin, says these dovetail with prior research.
“It fits with findings that self-compassion is negatively correlated with guilt-free shame (‘I am bad’) but uncorrelated with shame-free guilt (‘what I did was bad’),” she says. “There’s a lot of research—like that of Mike Leery and Juliana Breines—showing that people take more responsibility for their transgressions when they practice self-compassion.”
Why would this be? It seems counterintuitive, but past research has found that self-compassionate people tend to have a more stable sense of self-worth, and so they feel less threatened when considering their own shortcomings. This allows them to admit more readily that they’ve done something wrong and to consider making amends.
“If you’re afraid you’ll be shamed or really self-critical for admitting to doing something wrong, there’s going to be more motivation for ego-centric reactions,” says Neff. “Self-compassion gives you more ability to see your mistakes clearly, rather than trying to blame them on someone else or fob them off as not that big a deal.”
It’s also possible that self-compassion impacts moral judgment and behavior directly, according to the study authors. They point to a recent study in which white students who were manipulated to feel self-compassion were more likely to engage in activities promoting racial justice, suggesting that self-compassion may increase caring and adherence to fairness principles.
It’s noteworthy that two different groups studied—one Western and one Eastern—showed similar results, building upon prior research that suggests self-compassion might be helpful for people from divergent cultural backgrounds.
The good news for those of us who aren’t naturally self-compassionate is that we can learn techniques for self-compassion and still benefit from a host of positive outcomes. And we won’t be letting ourselves off the hook, either.