Mindfulness and self-compassion are now buzzwords for self-improvement. But in fact, a growing body of research shows these practices can lead to real mental health benefits. This research – ongoing, voluminous and worldwide – clearly shows how and why these two practices work.
One effective way to cultivate mindfulness and self-compassion is through meditation.
For more than 20 years, as a clinical psychologist, research scientist and educator, I taught meditation to students and clinical patients and took a deep dive into the research literature. My recent book, “The Self-Talk Workout: Six Science-Backed Strategies to Dissolve Self-Criticism and Transform the Voice in Your Head,” highlights much of that research.
I learned even more when I evaluated mental health programs and psychology classes that train participants in mindfulness and compassion-based techniques.
Defining mindfulness and self-compassion
Mindfulness means purposefully paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of interest or curiosity rather than judgment.
Self-compassion involves being kind and understanding toward yourself, even during moments of suffering or failure.
Both are associated with greater well-being.
But don’t confuse self-compassion with self-esteem or self-centeredness, or assume that it somehow lowers your standards, motivation or productivity. Instead, research shows that self-compassion is linked with greater motivation, less procrastination and better relationships.
Be patient when starting a meditation practice
I didn’t like meditation – the specific practice sessions that train mindfulness and self-compassion – the first time I tried it as a college student in the late ‘90s. I felt like a failure when my mind wandered, and I interpreted that as a sign that I couldn’t do it.
In both my own and others’ meditation practices, I’ve noticed that the beginning is often rocky and full of doubt, resistance and distraction.
But what seem like impediments can actually enhance meditation practice, because the mental work of handling them builds strength.
For the first six months I meditated, my body and mind were restless. I wanted to get up and do other tasks. But I didn’t. Eventually it became easier to notice my urges and thoughts without acting upon them. I didn’t get as upset with myself.
After about a year of consistent meditation, my mind seemed more organized and controllable; it no longer got stuck in self-critical loops. I felt a sense of kindness or friendliness toward myself in everyday moments, as well as during joyful or difficult experiences. I enjoyed ordinary activities more, such as walking or cleaning.
It took a while to understand that anytime you sit down and try to meditate, that’s meditation. It is a mental process, rather than a destination.
How meditation works on the mind
Just having a general intention to be more mindful or self-compassionate is unlikely to work.
Most programs shown to make meaningful differences involve at least seven sessions. Studies show these repeated workouts improve attention skills and decrease rumination, or repeated negative thinking.
They also lessen self-criticism, which is linked to numerous mental health difficulties, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Meditation is not just about sustaining your attention – it’s also about shifting and returning your focus after the distraction. The act of shifting and refocusing cultivates attention skills and decreases rumination.
Trying repeatedly to refrain from self-judgment during the session will train your mind to be less self-critical.
An interconnected group of brain regions called the default mode network is strikingly affected by meditation. Much of this network’s activity reflects repetitive thinking, such as a rehash of a decadeslong tension with your sister. It’s most prominent when you’re not doing much of anything. Activity of the default mode network is related to rumination, unhappiness and depression.
Research shows that just one month of meditation reduces the noise of the default mode network. The type of meditation practice doesn’t seem to matter.
Establishing the formal practice
A common misconception about mindfulness is that it’s simply a way to relax or clear the mind. Rather, it means intentionally paying attention to your experiences in a nonjudgmental way.
Consider meditation the formal part of your practice – that is, setting aside a time to work on specific mindfulness and self-compassion techniques.
Cultivating mindfulness with meditation often involves focusing on paying attention to the breath. A common way to start practice is to sit in a comfortable place and bring attention to your breathing, wherever you feel it most strongly.
At some point, probably after a breath or two, your mind will wander to another thought or feeling. As soon as you notice that, you can bring your attention back to the breath and try not to judge yourself for losing focus for five to 10 minutes.
When I was just getting started meditating, I would have to redirect my attention dozens or hundreds of times in a 20-to-30-minute session. Counting 10 breaths, and then another 10, and so on, helped me link my mind to the task of paying attention to my breathing.
The most well-established technique for cultivating self-compassion is called loving-kindness meditation. To practice, you can find a comfortable position, and for at least five minutes, internally repeat phrases such as, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.”
When your attention wanders, you can bring it back with as little self-judgment as possible and continue repeating the phrases. Then, if you like, offer the same well wishes to other people or to all beings.
Every time you return your focus to your practice without judging, you’re flexing your mental awareness, because you noticed your mind wandered. You also improve your capacity to shift attention, a valuable anti-rumination skill, and your nonjudgment, an antidote to self-criticism.
These practices work. Studies show that brain activity during meditation results in less self-judgment, depression and anxiety and results in less rumination.
Mindfulness also occurs when you tune into present-moment sensations, such as tasting your food or washing the dishes.
An ongoing routine of formal and informal practice can transform your thinking. And again, doing it once in a while won’t help as much. It’s like situps: A single situp isn’t likely to strengthen your abdominal muscles, but doing several sets each day will.
Meditation reduces self-criticism
Studies show that mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation reduce self-criticism, which leads to better mental health, including lower levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD. After an eight-week mindfulness program, participants experienced less self-judgment. These changes were linked with decreases in depression and anxiety.
One final point: Beginning meditators may find that self-criticism gets worse before it gets better.
After years or decades of habitual self-judgment, people often judge themselves harshly about losing focus during meditation. But once students get through the first few weeks of practice, the self-judgment begins to abate, both about meditation and about oneself in general.
As one of my students recently said after several weeks of mindfulness meditation: “I am more stable, more able to detach from unhelpful thoughts and can do all of this while being a little more compassionate and loving toward myself.”