Enter self-compassion. First measured by Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin, the trait has been shown by researchers to ease symptoms of psychopathology in adults, while bolstering motivation and high performance standards. In other words, you can be nice to yourself and succeed, absent the Netflix and pajamas.
Late last year, Imogen Marsh, Stella Chan and Angus Macbeth at the University of Edinburgh published a meta-analysis of research on self-compassion in young people in the journal Mindfulness. They synthesized studies on more than 7,000 adolescents from six countries, ranging in age from 10 to 19. They found that teens with high levels of the trait were most likely to report lower levels of distress caused by anxiety and depression — especially when facing chronic academic stress.
Adolescence is a developmental moment of peak stress, and a teen’s heightened self-consciousness (“Do I look weird? Did I just sound stupid in class?”) cranks up the volume of the inner critic. Self-compassion encourages mindfulness, or noticing your feelings without judgment; self-kindness, or talking to yourself in a soothing way; and common humanity, or thinking about how others might be suffering similarly.
This last step is particularly salubrious for adolescents: Many believe that “I’m the only one going through this,” which exacerbates feelings of isolation and shame.
The teens I work with are prone to catastrophizing when facing a problem (“I’ll never get into college,” “I’ll never get a good job”). For them, the mindfulness step of self-compassion — which asks them to zero in on a feeling instead of an imagined, exaggerated outcome — is especially grounding. My students find self-kindness most challenging, so I ask them to imagine how they would comfort a close friend struggling with the same challenge. “There’s almost no one whom we treat as badly as ourselves,” Dr. Neff told me.