Hacking Stigma by Loving Yourself

In the Face of Hardship, Self-Compassion Eases the Way 

Your mother might have told you that if you don’t love yourself, no one else can. Turns out, mom was right - again. Psychologists who study self-compassion find it is associated with reduced self-stigma and negative outcomes like depression, anxiety, and somatization among people with stigmatized identities such as overweight individuals, people with eating disorders, people with HIV, and parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. 

“The association between self-compassion and well-being has been well established in literature. Research has shown that self-compassion is associated with higher levels of positive affect, happiness, optimism, and life satisfaction, and lower levels of negative affect, depressive and anxiety symptoms and may also buffer the negative effects of stigma,” said Michael Zvolensky, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of psychology and author of research on the subject.  

One form of mindful-acceptance intervention, a step toward self-compassion that can help through a difficult time, is called acceptance-commitment therapy (ACT). It is one of the few theory-based behavioral interventions that focus, in part, on self-acceptance and values-driven behavior.  

In this article, Zvolensky and colleagues share tips on the importance of self-compassion and how to practice mindful therapy and ACT during difficult times. 

Q: Can you explain a little more about how we can be more compassionate toward ourselves? 

A. Self-compassion is generally:  

  1. Self-kindness versus self-judgment. Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be sympathetic toward the self. It involves tolerance and understanding when relating to one’s failings and inadequacies. When confronting painful situations, instead of harsh self-criticism and judgment, people with self-kindness give themselves the warmth, gentleness and unconditional acceptance that are essential for emotional equanimity and healing.  
  2. Common humanity versus isolation. Common humanity refers to recognizing that all humans are connected, that we all fail, that we make mistakes and engage in dysfunctional behavior. People with a common humanity perspective tend to have a broader and more inclusive perspective in which they acknowledge life challenges and personal failures as parts of the shared human experience, and that they are not alone in their struggles.  
  3. Mindfulness versus over-identification. Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental and receptive mind state that allows awareness of present moment experience, acknowledgment of pain without reacting to it.  

Mindfulness is an essential component of self-compassion; it is impossible for individuals to foster self-compassion if their pain and suffering are not recognized. 

Q: How can we be more mindful? 

A: Behavioral treatments such as ACT and other mindfulness activities help us stay focused on the present moment without judgement. ACT allows us to have some psychological distance to observe our experience, which can reduce the controlling function of the mental experience on our behaviors. 

Q: What are the steps to follow? 

A: With ACT there are six core processes:  

  1. Keep contact with the present moment— be open, have mindful awareness of what is happening at the present moment; 
  2. Cognitive diffusion—notice thoughts as they are, simply thoughts, not necessary reality;  
  3. Self-as-context—be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and other internal states, and be able to distinguish those mental experiences from the experiencing self;  
  4. Acceptance—not avoiding negative experiences but embracing both positive and negative experiences in the present moment;  
  5. Values—Connect with valued directions that are personal, and intrinsically meaningful;  
  6. Committed action—Being willing to live a values-consistent life despite negative inner experience. 
portrait of Michael Zvolensky smiling

Michael Zvolensky, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of psychology

Michael Zvolensky, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of psychology

young woman hugging herself