Practicing self-compassion not only makes individuals healthier and happier but also is a good predictor of healthy romantic relationships, according to a new study by University of Texas at Austin educational psychologists Kristin Neff and Tasha Beretvas.
Their findings counter traditional views on relationship satisfaction, indicating that being kind and supportive to ourselves helps us to be kinder and more supportive to those we care about. The research may help therapists better tailor treatments for couples with relationship problems and could help individuals learn how to relate to themselves and their relationships in a new way.
“Self-compassion refers to the ability to be kind and understanding toward oneself when faced with personal inadequacies or difficult situations rather than beating oneself up,” said Neff, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Psychology and a leading international expert in the field of self-compassion. “People with self-compassion frame setbacks and problems in life as part of our shared humanity and as something that everyone endures at one time or another. They are also mindful of their negative thoughts and emotions as they are so that the feelings and thoughts are acknowledged without suppression or exaggeration.”
For the study, which was published in the journal Self and Identity, Neff surveyed 104 couples using the self-compassion scale that she developed almost a decade ago. Study participants were asked for a self-assessment of their level of self-compassion as well as for an assessment of their partner’s behavior in the relationship. Neff wanted to determine whether the degree to which a person is self-compassionate predicts how caring, accepting and supportive that person is of a relationship partner.
She found that self-reported levels of self-compassion were associated with personal well-being in terms of feeling more authentic and happy in the relationship. Neff stated that this is unsurprising given the large body of research linking self-compassion with psychological health.
More striking, said Neff, is the finding that individuals who described themselves as self-compassionate also tended to be described by their partners as being significantly more affectionate, intimate and accepting in their relationships, as well as granting more freedom and autonomy to partners.
In contrast, individuals with lower levels of self-compassion were described by partners as being significantly more controlling, detached, domineering and verbally aggressive. As one would expect given these findings, participants with more self-compassionate partners also reported being more satisfied in their relationships than those with partners who were harshly judgmental of themselves.
Interestingly, the study found that an individual’s level of self-compassion rather than self-esteem predicted healthier relationship behavior.
“Self-esteem is about judging yourself positively and may entail ego-defensiveness,” said Neff. “Self-compassion, on the other hand, is simply about relating to yourself kindly even when you’ve failed or made a huge mistake. Ironically, sometimes the need for high self-esteem can alienate you from others and cause discord especially if judging yourself positively means always trying to be right or to get your own way in your relationship.”
According to Neff, if you have self-compassion, you are better able to own up to your mistakes, forgive yourself and try harder next time. Also, by giving yourself emotional support and validation through self-compassion, you aren’t so dependent on your partner to meet all of your needs and can instead be more giving and generous to your significant other.