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Why Is It So Much Harder to Be Nice to Ourselves Than to Other People?

Psychologists have the answer — and, for once, a fairly straightforward solution

A glaring omission from modern behavioral science is the study of the hand movements made by the singers of soulful ballads. For those with eyes to see, all of human life’s deepest truths are contained in the expressive gesticulations of divas. A perfect example — and a good place to inaugurate the formal discipline of what we may as well call hand-throw-pology — is the video for Toni Braxton’s 1996 hit “Un-Break My Heart.” Sexily grieving for her sexy boyfriend (whom we see tragically, yet somehow still sexily, killed at the start, in a slow-motion motorcycle accident) by moping around her house, bumping into walls and refusing to put on some clothes, Braxton makes a number of hand gestures throughout that are equally revealing.

“Don’t leave me alone in the rain…,” she sings while clutching her own upper arms in her wispy black mourning negligée. “Uncry these tears…,” she pleads as she first presses her palms together, then caresses her hairline in the shower. “Undo this hurt that you caused when you walked out the door…,” she demands, on stage now and with a few more clothes on, bringing it home and purposefully placing both hands over her still un-unbroken heart.

These are all classic chanteuse maneuvers to be sure. But according to actual, peer-reviewed research, they’re also power moves in the application of psychological self-compassion. For many of us, they might even prove potent weapons in combating a particularly unhelpful quirk in our natures: The fact that most of us find it easy to be kind to others when they’re in need of emotional support, yet will act like callous shitbags when it comes to reflecting on our own personal crises and failings.

The good news is that while singers’ hand-choreography isn’t yet the object of scientific investigation, this odd dearth of self-compassion is — and progress is being made. Having, in 2003, come up with what is now the definitive scale psychologists use to quantify and measure people’s self-compassion, Kristin Neff is the leader in this emerging field. And per a recent study of hers, fully three-quarters of us are habitually “significantly” nicer to others than we are to ourselves. While the rest, she finds, will show kindness to themselves and others in equal amounts, Neff estimates that only “maybe five percent are more compassionate to themselves than others. I haven’t studied them yet; I don’t know if they’re narcissists, but they’re really weird!”

She has studied the vast majority who seem prone to self-disdain, though, and Neff, who is associate professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin — has found that self-comforting hand movements are one surprisingly effective way to avoid our unfortunate tendency to do ourselves down. “We use physical touch as a really useful [technique] because it happens at the preverbal level. We help people find the type of touch that feels supportive. For some people, it’s hands on heart; other people, cradling their face; some people, holding their own hand.” For T. Braxon circa 1996, as we’ve seen, it was all three.

As co-founder of the educational non-profit Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, Neff also teaches other methods of self-support, including the regular habit of talking to yourself, whether out loud or in your head, in warm, encouraging terms. We’ll come on to exactly why these tactics might prove so successful in bolstering our mental health — and the explanation gets right to the heart of the weird duality that’s at work when we’re doling out our sympathies. But first it’s worth outlining what Neff and other psychologists who study it mean by self-compassion, and why they think it’s such an important trait to acquire.

“When you go into battle, who do you want for your side — an ally or an enemy?” asks Neff. “With self-compassion, it’s like you’ve got your own back.” It’s much stronger, she says, “to have an ally inside your head than an enemy who’s cutting you down and saying, ‘You can’t do it,’ and ‘You’re not good enough.’”

She draws a distinction between this cheerleader approach to self-worth and the perhaps more familiar notion of self-esteem, which she characterizes more in Mean Girls terms, as “a fair-weather friend” and believes is nowhere near as helpful to our overall well-being. “Self-esteem, if you think of it just as a positive judgement of oneself, can sometimes work and sometimes not. So when we fail, for instance, our self-esteem takes a huge hit, right when we need it the most. Our self-esteem deserts us.”

What’s Self-Love Got To Do with It?

As a mental-health insurance policy, actively being kind to yourself, compared to merely investing pride in yourself, comes with a range of added protections. “The research is clear that people who lack self-compassion tend to have trouble in many important areas of human flourishing,” says Taylor Kreiss, an L.A.-based life-coach and speaker who draws on positive psychology and philosophy to advise clients on “the art and science of a happy life.” “People who lack self-compassion,” he continues, “tend to experience more stress, less motivation toward valued goals, diminished resilience, maladaptive perfectionism, isolation and insecurity.” For men in particular, he thinks a reluctance to offer yourself support can pose a “devastating hazard,” in that “a lack of self-compassion impedes our ability to live authentically; to become the men we want to be.”

If the practice of self-compassion is the answer, though, cradling yourself in soothing hands and softly giving yourself pep talks might not seem like the guy-est thing to do. “Unfortunately,” says Kreiss, “many men tend to think it’s weak or woo-woo bullshit to engage in the elements of self-compassion.” Instead, inherited, baked-in ideas of heterosexual masculinity will very often prevail: “Many men have been culturally conditioned to berate themselves with brutal self-criticism when they find imperfection or weakness. They have your stereotypical angry football coach or the gunnery sergeant from Full Metal Jacket in their head, just waiting to curse them out whenever they mess up.”

It’s an apt analogy. In addressing the idea that the habits of self-compassion might come across as a sign of weakness, Kristin Neff points to a study led by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which assessed levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among combat troops who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In their paper, published in April 2015, the researchers said they’d “found a negative association between self-compassion and PTSD symptom severity at baseline and 12-month follow-up.” Which means, explains Neff, “those soldiers who were kinder and more supportive about what they had experienced toward themselves were actually less likely to get PTSD.”

Evidently at least some men, then, even in as towel-snappingly masculine an environment as the military, are routinely giving themselves a break. “The barriers to self-compassion are akin to the barriers that keep men out of therapy,” says Kreiss. But while “they often come up in coaching male clients and in everyday life,” he says, “thankfully as a society we’re trying to overcome many of these characteristics of toxic masculinity.”

Clearly, though, it’s not just emotionally inhibited men who struggle with bestowing appropriate levels of kindness on themselves. Neff suggests that cultural norms, particularly in the U.S., mean many might associate self-care with other frowned-upon “selfies” like self-indulgence and selfishness. “We use the whip with ourselves because we assume that that’s the most effective way to motivate ourselves,” she says. “It kind of works but it has all these unintended consequences, like to make you depressed and ashamed; it can give you performance anxiety; it can make you afraid of failure.”

You Are the Wind Beneath Your Wings

According to positive psychologists, developing a healthy self-compassionate disposition is closely associated with mindfulness, a word that might cause more than a few to flinch at the self-help hype and Buddhist mystique surrounding it. While, according to Neff, being mindful of your suffering is an essential ingredient in any act of self-compassion — because you can’t extend a helping hand to yourself if you aren’t first aware that you need it — she insists you don’t need to be an eighth-level bodhisattva to get the benefit. “You don’t have to practice mindfulness meditation to do self-compassion; you can just be aware. And you’ve done the practice your whole life, probably — where people learn how to be a good friend and how to be a support to someone. You can fall back on that.”

Getting practical, Kreiss suggests cultivating kindness by “searching for a thought you had earlier in the day that was overly critical, writing it down, then turning your criticism into a statement of self-compassion.” His top recommendation is “to set a series of alarms on your phone, so that eight times a day a message pops up on your screen reminding you to “Practice self compassion.” “Try this for two weeks,” he says, “and see if you don’t find your spontaneous natural reactions becoming more self-compassionate.” Alternatively, of course, you could schedule eight internal choruses of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” and let your hands do the talking.

Another of the central aspects of Neff’s concept of self-compassion is one we should all be able to relate to. To be truly kind to yourself, she argues, is to realize that whatever shame, embarrassment, disappointment, sorrow or anxiety you might be experiencing, those feelings are being shared, somewhere, by someone else. Because they’re all inescapable aspects of being biological humans dealing with our universal human shit. And it’s this element, waking up to what Neff calls our “common humanity,” that helps explain why some 75 percent of us are emotionally generous with friends but are continually short-changing ourselves.

Our emotional asymmetry, she says, springs from the fact “that self-criticism and self-compassion tap in to two different physiological systems.” When we self-criticize, explains Neff, it’s often a trigger for our body’s fight-or-flight stress response, which is controlled by a neurological network known, slightly confusingly, as the sympathetic nervous system. Evolved in our hunter-gatherer past to put us in a state of high alertness and heart-thumping readiness for action, it’s a system that’s all too quick to activate whenever we feel threatened. When the threat arises from ourselves, “because we’ve failed or we aren’t good enough,” says Neff, “then we try to fight ourselves, control ourselves, so we can be safe. But when my friend fails, I’m not directly threatened. So I don’t have to go into that fight, flight or freeze mode.”

“The thing we have to remember,” she says, is that our aggressive reaction toward ourselves “is all about wanting to be safe.” But it turns out our bodies have a second mechanism for helping us do that. This parasympathetic nervous system is “a later thing evolutionarily — the mammalian care system,” says Neff, which regulates the heart rate and our levels of “feel-good” hormones such as oxytocin. This system helps mammals bond with each other “in the context of warmth, care, kindness, touch and gentle sounds. That’s what motivates children to be near their parents and motivates parents to take care of their children.” But compared to the fight-or-flight path to feeling secure, this system “doesn’t come online as quickly and it takes a little extra effort.”

“So all we’re doing with self-compassion,” says Neff, “is we’re teaching people to use this other safety system — the care system — for themselves, to help them feel safe. It’s very doable. That’s the crazy thing: It’s not that hard for people to do. Because they already have it!”

Which makes sense of why the mannerisms of being nice to yourself — those kind words and ballad-singer heart-pressing and head-caressing — might actually have a great deal of merit in fortifying our mental defenses. “I don’t want to make self-compassion sound like some sort of tonic for all of life’s ills,” says Kreiss, “but the research suggests it’s a learnable skill that unlocks many of the most sought-after goods of life.” 

It’s just as Whitney Houston once sang while lightly tapping on her chest: “Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.” (See? Diva hands: All of life’s truths. Someone really should get on this.)