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Why You Should Give Yourself a Hug

Self-compassion improves health. Take a quiz to find out if you've got it.

By Jeanne Dorin | April 4, 2014

The lives of millions of boomers in their 50s and 60s have been characterized by ambition, achievement and competitiveness.
 
Then the recession and lingering economic woes took their toll. For many, drive has given way to disappointment. Self-esteem has been eclipsed by worries about money, retirement and aging. Many of us think we should be doing better.

But here's advice worth heeding: Stop berating yourself. A growing body of research from some of the nation's top universities is documenting the benefits of self-compassion — being as kind and accepting of your own failures as you would a friend’s.

(MORE: Small Failures Can Lead to Big Successes)
 
Giving yourself a break and accepting your imperfections improves overall health and well-being, boosts creativity and success and can even help people cope better with aging, studies have found. 
 
Moreover, those who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety.

We Are All Imperfect

"Treating oneself kindly leads people to understand and experience the reality that their troubles are part of the human condition," says University of Texas at Austin educational psychology associate professor Kristin Neff, who has published a book on her research on self-compassion.
 
Self-compassion, Neff says, is recognizing that we are all imperfect and should support ourselves, as well as others.

This is especially relevant for boomers who, at this stage, tend to tally their life achievements and come up short. Even bags under the eyes and a painful joint or two can lead to a barrage of self-criticism.
 
In fact, says Neff, people with low self-compassion mistakenly believe that being self-critical will motivate them.
 
"But being kind to yourself does not lower standards,” she says. “With self compassion you aim and reach just as high, but if you don't reach your goals it's OK because your sense of self-worth isn't contingent on success."

Feeling Better About Aging

Other recent studies have also found that self-compassion is a valuable tool to ease the angst of aging.
 
In her research, University of North Florida psychology professor Ashley Allen and her partner, Duke University psychology and neuroscience professor Mark Leary, found that in adults ages 63 to 93, self-compassion can contribute to more positive feelings about getting older.
 
While most older adults struggle (depending on their age) with memory issues, loss of loved ones, ailments and illness, respondents with higher levels of self-compassion recognize they’re not the only ones. They see that these issues can be part of aging. 

(MORE: 8 New Approches to Age-Related Change)
 
With acceptance comes the ability to seek and appreciate help with problems. Low self-compassion adults are more likely to refuse assistance, Allen says.

"It's important to recognize that you're not alone. If people recognize and accept that and don't think they're supposed to be different from everyone else, it can go a long way," says Allen.

Why Self-Criticism Doesn’t Work
 
Although the physiology of self-compassion has not been nailed down, researchers believe that self-critical thinking leads to the fight or flight response and a boost in cortisol levels.
 
Self-compassion, on the other hand, releases the hormone oxytocin, which is a brain neurotransmitter modulator linked to maternal bonding and intimacy. 
 
"Evolutionarily, all mammals and humans respond to things like warmth, a gentle touch and soothing," says Neff, who suggests crossing your hands across your chest and gently pushing on your heart to release hormones and practice self-compassion.
 
"When you put your hands on your heart in a soothing gesture, your physiology is triggered. You release oxytocin and parts of the brain are activated,” Neff says.
 
The resulting calm allows for better productivity and problem-solving. It’s easier to see the big picture.  When you're feeling self-critical and in fight or flight response, it’s hard for perspective to take hold.

(MOREA Quick Cure for the Pessimism Pandemic)

The good news is that self-compassion can be cultivated. Here are four suggestions from Neff for how to do it:

  • Take a self-compassion break. For five minutes, repeat a mantra: "I'm going to be kind to myself in this moment."
  • Write yourself a letter of support, similar to what you might give a friend.
  • When you feel self-critical, remind yourself that these feelings are shared by most people.
  • Start meditation with a mindfulness self-compassion component.

Take this self-compassion test to find out how self-compassionate you are.

Below, watch Kristin Neff discuss self-compassion at TedX:



Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness.