Self-compassion: More adaptive than self-esteem in sport & exercise?


High self-esteem is a great thing to have, right? In sport and exercise, we think of self-esteem as vital in helping to maintain performance levels, as well as keeping up the motivation to push that little bit harder in the gym or while running on the soggy streets on a winter’s morning. We also think of performing well in sport and exercising regularly as ways of boosting self-esteem (e.g. Fox, 2000). Indeed, holding this assumption, as Mosewich et al (2011) note, there exists a body of research dedicated to identifying sport environments and instructional strategies to nurture positive self-esteem (Patterson, 1999; Weiss, 1993). The question is, though: are there any other types of self-concept that are as adaptive in sport and exercise, or possibly even more adaptive?

A highly promising potential affirmative answer lies with a pretty new concept to Western psychology: self-compassion. Derived from Eastern modes of thinking, and Buddhism in particular, self-compassion is a highly related but distinct way of viewing yourself from self-esteem. It comprises three parts: self-kindness, an appreciation of common humanity and mindfulness (Neff, 2003). Self-kindness involves feelings of unconditional regard toward the self in the face of any situation, whether involving failure, pain or inadequacy. A sense of common humanity is about recognising all of our experiences, good or bad, as part of the human condition shared by everyone. Mindfulness, which you have probably come across, is a mode of thinking that cultivates moment-to-moment awareness characterised by a reflective distance from our experiences.

Therefore unlike self-esteem, which is based on the degree to which we evaluate ourselves as competent in important areas of life (James, 1890), self-compassion is not contingent on self-evaluations, judgments, and comparisons to determine our self-worth (Coopersmith, 1967; Harter, 1999). Instead, self-compassion will remain constant through ever-changing life circumstances. In sport, this could be a great win, a heavy loss, an injury or a dip in form, and in exercise it could be a drop in motivation, fatigue or physical pain.

The intentional development of self-compassion is still very much an emerging science, but already systematic compassionate mind training programmes exist.

Research on self-compassion is in its relative infancy in Western psychology, and most of this has focused on its benefits for mental health and well-being (e.g. Gilbert & Irons, 2005; Leary et al, 2005). It’s only in the last couple of years that the strong evidence showing its benefits for mental well-being and psychological functioning (Neff et al, 2007) has been adopted for research in sport and exercise.

A group of researchers from Canada (Magnus et al, 2010; Mosewich et al, 2011) have started to mine the massive potential of helping athletes and exercisers to develop self-compassion to benefit performance levels and exercise maintenance or improvement. In an exercise setting with female participants, Magnus and colleagues found that self-compassion was positively related to intrinsic motivation (exercising because of enjoyment). It was also negatively correlated with external and introjected motivation (like exercising through guilt or coercion), ego goal orientation (focus on one’s capability compared with others), social physique anxiety (feeling self-conscious and anxious about one’s physique around others), and obligatory exercise behaviour (exercising even when it’s harmful to one’s health). While self-esteem was also correlated in the same direction, importantly, self-compassion explained more variance than self-esteem, suggesting that these benefits were brought about by self-compassion over and beyond self-esteem.

In a sport setting, Mosewich and colleagues replicated Magnus et al’s findings for young female athletes, while also revealing a negative correlation between self-compassion and both fear of failure and fear of evaluation, with self-compassion explaining variance beyond self-esteem in both areas. Neff (2005) had previously showed the negative correlation with fear of failure; something particularly relevant to sport and exercise, given the fact it hinders mastery-based performance (Conroy & Elliot, 2003) and exercise maintenance (Anshel et al, 2007).

As well as being characterised by self-kindness, self-compassion is also about valuing one’s health and well-being.

Given that unlike self-esteem, self-compassionate is not contingent on self-evaluation or one’s circumstances, self-compassion should be more stable across time as well. As it doesn’t require high levels of competence in order to remain intact, it should also be easier to develop. The intentional development of self-compassion is still very much an emerging science, but already systematic compassionate mind training programmes exist. Paul Gilbert, a renowned clinical psychologist, has been heavily active on this front, most recently co-developing the user-friendly Mindful Compassion programme, recently set out in a book. I can vouch for its effectiveness.

There are a few things to clarify about self-compassion, as, like any novel concept it is open to much misunderstanding. Importantly, it’s worth spelling out that it is not the same as self-indulgence, self-pity or laziness. The understandable question raised by researchers is whether self-compassion can result in people given themselves too much slack; the theory being, for instance, that if I, as a self-compassionate person, miss a whole month at the gym in order to vegetate on the sofa I might simply think it’s perfectly fine given there’s nothing I could do that would make me feel less worthwhile. Although this line of enquiry seems to make intuitive sense, it actually reflects more of a misconception of self-compassion than anything else.

As well as being characterised by self-kindness, self-compassion is also about valuing one’s health and well-being. That’s why it’s different to self-indulgence. Dodging a trip to the gym and engorging a massive pizza instead might feel good at the time, but self-compassion involves a reflective wisdom to see what action is good for one’s well-being in the long run. So sometimes self-compassion means doing things that hurt in the short-term for the good of the long-term- like pushing a little bit harder at the end of a shuttle run to increase your fitness, for example. Indeed, self-compassion has been shown to be highly correlated with self-improvement motivation. Breines and Chen (2012) found across a range of domains and populations that self-compassionate responses to personal weakness (e.g. self-indulgence) and moral transgression increased people’s motivation to improve themselves.

I came across the research by my own experience of developing self-compassion, and the incredible benefits it gave me, both in terms of mental well-being and performance in sport

Coming back to sport, it’s worth looking at self-compassion’s more familiar sibling: self-criticism. Many top level athletes often describe themselves as being their ‘own worst critic’. It’s always interested me that this is often highly valued as an approach, vindicated perhaps by some of the top sportsmen and women describing holding this mindset. Certainly, athletes often talk about perfectionism as driving them to the heights of performance, but as we know, this is a double-edged sword. Recently, for example, Taranis and Meyer (2012) found that self-critical tendencies in perfectionistic schemas were positively related to obligatory exercise behaviour (an unhealthy compulsion).

So, do we need to be perfectionistic and self-critical in order to develop and learn from our mistakes? Well, given that self-compassion is linked with self-improvement, one would imagine that being self-compassionate in the face of failure or making mistakes would still orientate you towards learning from and rectifying the mistakes, with the added benefit of avoiding the castigation and negative affect resulting from self-criticism. Indeed, Breines and Chen (2012) found that in a group of students, just a gentle reminder to be self-compassionate after making a lab-based mistake actually resulted in greater effort in future study than those who had been given a self-esteem-based reminder. So, as suggested by Duckworth (2007), self-compassion may well be a more adaptive approach to failure than self-criticism, as well as self-esteem without self-compassion, given the greater effort an motivation towards self-improvement it engenders.

I’m personally very excited about the prospect of integrating the ever-expanding research base on self-compassion and mindfulness into the realm of sport and exercise. I came across the research by my own experience of developing self-compassion, and the incredible benefits it gave me, both in terms of mental well-being and performance in sport (football, tennis and running if you’re asking). Although the research is in its infancy, and I can’t see it being integrated into sport and exercise psychology practice as standard for a little while, I’d encourage anyone interested in the subject to look into self-compassion as an exciting alternative to self-esteem.

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