People who nurture self-compassion are happier and tend to enjoy healthier romantic relationships.
Common wisdom suggests that when relationship problems rear their ugly heads, the solution is to work harder to please your mate maybe lose 15 pounds, be more cheerful, stop being so needy.
But it turns out that one of the best ways to keep the love fires burning is first to be kinder to yourself.
Kristin Neff, an educational psychologist and author of “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind” (William Morrow, 2011), indicates that people with higher levels of self-compassion tend to achieve greater emotional well being and contentment and to enjoy healthier relationships.
“Self-compassion is about acknowledging that you’re flawed, you’re human, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK,” says Neff, an associate professor in the College of Education and a pioneer in the scientific study of self-compassion. “When you have a healthy level of self-compassion, you’re as kind, considerate and forgiving to yourself as you would be to anyone you cared about. You don’t beat yourself up or become defensive, depressed and angry when you face the setbacks we all encounter at one point or another.”
Research during the past decade suggests that people who nurture self-compassion have better overall psychological and emotional health, experience less anxiety and depression, are more motivated to achieve their goals and even have less trouble with common issues such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
To find out if self-compassion also makes you a better relationship partner, Neff surveyed 104 couples using a self-compassion scale that she developed.
The findings supported her theory that people who can first give themselves emotional support and validation will be in a better position to be giving, accepting and generous to their partners.
In the study, individuals who reported high levels of self-compassion also said they felt more authentic and happier in their relationships. More important, their mates described them as being significantly more affectionate, supportive, intimate and accepting in the relationship, as well as readily granting more freedom and autonomy to their partners.
And what about those who didn’t score high on self-compassion?
Their partners described them as being more controlling, detached, domineering, judgmental and verbally aggressive and, not surprisingly, reported much less relationship satisfaction.
For couples that want to see how they stack up in the area of self-compassion, Neff has an online self-compassion test. It includes 26 statements that help you decide just how kind you are to yourself when you fail or face setbacks and how you tend to frame your flaws and shortcomings.
If you respond “almost always” to statements such as “I’m disapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies,” for example, that suggests you may have some work to do when it comes to fostering self-compassion.
“Should you or your partner score low on self-compassion, there are several things you can try on your own that should help you become more accepting of your imperfections and your basic ‘humanness,’ ” Neff says, including:
Write a letter to yourself from the perspective of an unconditionally loving friend or family member. Say the things in the letter that someone who’s caring and understanding would say to you about your perceived shortcomings.
“Wait awhile and then read it,” Neff suggests, “taking in the feelings of acceptance and support.”
Put your hands over your heart or use some other form of soothing touch when you’re struggling. Physical gestures of care and kindness tap into the body’s mammalian caregiving system, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and increasing feel-good hormones such as oxytocin, Neff explains.
Try guided meditations. Meditation helps to retrain the brain, Neff says.
Say kind words to yourself.
Whatever strategy you choose, the goal is to meet your own emotional needs, become better at living in the present moment and avoid consistently negative, self-critical thoughts.
“There’s really no downside to boosting your self-compassion,” Neff says. “You experience more happiness, contentment and peace, and your relationships improve. It’s the classic win-win.”
To find out more about exercises that can help you build self-compassion, recommended reading materials and videos on developing self-compassion, visit Neff’s website.
Watch Kristin Neff’s TedX Talk: The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion
For more “romantic” research, check out these stories:
Gender Roles Escalate for Women on Valentine’s Day (Research by Angeline Close, Department of Advertising)
The Marriage Penalty (Lillian Mills explains the tax on Texas Enterprise)
Love Sick? (Research by Tim Loving, Department of Human Development and Family Sciences)
For actual romance, see:
Prescription for Love (real-life love stories from the College of Pharmacy)
2013 Longhorn Love Stories (real-life love stories from the McCombs School of Business)
And for some “sweet” UT history, visit:
Dear Bird: The 1934 Courtship Letters (Love letters exchanged between Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson before they were married, shared online by the LBJ Presidential Library)
Deep in the Hearts of Texas: UT Sweethearts, Beauties and Bluebonnet Belles (an online exhibit from the Center for American History)