University life can be tough. Alongside the obvious drive to perform well and graduate with high marks, and the associated stress and pressure that this comes with, many students find that this is the first time that they are living away from home, sometimes far away from home, which comes with added pressures and new responsibilities. Some students are also facing complex personal and emotional concerns or are dealing with long-term difficulties with their health. A university community is as complex and as varied as the world community is, each person facing their own challenges and difficulties. Self-compassion is a growing area of research among positive psychologists and there is much evidence to suggest that the student population can benefit greatly from this research. Self-compassion is most beneficial to those experiencing pain or failure and has also been cited as contributing to reductions in stress and anxiety (Neff, 2003). Further research has also noted a correlation between self-compassion and positive social relationships (Neff & McGehee, 2009) whilst others have explored the use of self-compassion to increase motivation (Breines and Chen, 2012).
Dealing with failure
One of the main ways in which self-compassion may be able to improve the experience of a university student is through its focus on mindfully accepting painful thoughts and feelings, particularly in instances of failure. Anyone who has attended University will agree that one of the most challenging aspects of completing an academic course is the emotions, stress and worry associated with perceived failure. Failure in academia can look different to each individual. Some students see failure to be receiving any sort of grade that does not fall into the top-tier of achievement, others see failure as receiving a grade lower than the pass mark. Wherever the benchmark lies, students who fail to reach this artificially contrived number often find it difficult to stay motivated and, ultimately, to reach the grades that they are striving for. Self-compassion is described as “being kind to oneself in instances of pain or failure; perceiving ones experiences as part of the larger human experience; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness” (Neff, Rude & Kirkpatrick, 2007). Through this practice, students may be able to recognise and accept the emotions associated with failure and better cope with the challenges that University might throw at them. Self-compassion is not about changing these emotions or denying their existence but rather embracing and mindfully accepting them, recognising that pain is a common part of human existence. In this way students may grow to no longer fear failure quite so much, and as a result may also experience a decline in levels of stress.
A key element of self-compassion is mindfulness. Whilst there are ways to practice self-compassion without meditation, being mindfully aware of ones experiences can allow one to hold and accept associated negative emotions, without dwelling on or being defined by them, and can help feelings of kindness towards the self to arise (Neff, 2003). Mindfulness has also been widely used as a technique for reducing stress and the fact that self-compassion is based upon the concept may enhance its ability to assist in this area.
University students often find themselves dealing with great social pressure and social comparison, particularly as many of them are mere adolescents when they begin their studies. Heightened social pressures at this age make it difficult to develop feelings of compassion for others or for the self (Irons & Gilbert, 2009), and prevents any instincts towards self-compassion in moments of difficulty. This focus on social comparison can lead to an increase in feelings of shame among students as they compare not only their academic success but also their social and physical encounters with those around them and make inferences from this about their own self-worth. A key element of self-compassion is the recognition that pain and suffering are part of the wider human experience, a recognition which has been known to encourage greater empathy towards others (Neff, 2003). Students who are high in levels of self-compassion are less likely to be self-critical and are often also less likely to be critical of others. Similarly those who have high levels of self-acceptance are more likely to accept perceived faults and failings in others. In this way, self-compassion has been shown to improve relationships and increase social connectedness.
One final, and important way, in which self-compassion can enhance the student experience is by helping to increase student motivation. With mindfulness as a key component, many might believe that self-compassion would have a negative effect on motivation, however recent studies have suggested that by practicing self-compassion, students are less likely to procrastinate, are less likely to fear failure and are more likely to confront their feelings and aim to improve themselves (Breines & Chen, 2012). This study highlights the links between self-belief and motivation and suggests that students who are high in levels of self-compassion may even see an improvement in their grades.
Self-compassion has the potential to provide many benefits for university students and can help them to develop skills which they can adapt to whatever life may throw at them for years to come. There are a number of ways to begin a self-compassion practice but one of the best ways to start is by going to www.selfcompassion.org, reading the research and trying some of the activities for yourself. If you are a student, don’t forget that if you are struggling your University’s support or counselling services will be available to help you.
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.
Neff, K. D. (2003). The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and identity, 2(3), 223-250.
Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 908-916.
Neff, K. D., & McGehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and identity, 9(3), 225-240.
Gilbert, P., & Irons, C. (2009). Shame, self-criticism, and self-compassion in adolescence. Adolescent emotional development and the emergence of depressive disorders, 195-214.
About the author: Katherine Halliday lives in Dundee in Scotland and works in student support at the University of St Andrews. Katherine is currently undertaking the MAPP course at Bucks New University and is loving every minute of it.