Anxiety

NYT: Why Self-Compassion Beats Self-Confidence

“Be more confident,” a friend once told me as we made the rounds at a swanky networking event where I felt terribly out of place. Faking confidence is easy: I pulled my shoulders back and spoke louder and with more assertiveness.

Like many soft-spoken, mild-mannered people, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to present myself this way. As it turns out, confidence may be overrated.

“We like confidence because it feels good and gives us a sense of control. The alternative would be constant anxiety,” said Eric Barker, author of “Barking Up the Wrong Tree.”

We live in a culture that reveres self-confidence and self-assuredness, but as it turns out, there may be a better approach to success and personal development: self-compassion. While self-confidence makes you feel better about your abilities, it can also lead you to vastly overestimate those abilities.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, encourages you to acknowledge your flaws and limitations, allowing you to look at yourself from a more objective and realistic point of view. Both have merits, but many experts believe that self-compassion includes the advantages of self-confidence without the drawbacks.

In his book, Mr. Barker asserts that productivity culture often promotes faking confidence without considering these drawbacks. Namely, when you fake it, you may start to believe your own lie, which can lead to disastrous outcomes.

Because confidence feels good “we often don’t notice when it creeps across the line to overconfidence,” Mr. Barker said. This is better known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: a cognitive bias in which you overestimate your ability in something.

For example, a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology asked people to describe themselves while being recorded on video. Those subjects were then told they would be rated on how likable, friendly and intelligent they seemed in the video. Subjects who had high levels of self-compassion had generally the same emotional reaction no matter how they were rated. By contrast, people with high levels of self-esteem had negative emotional reactions if the feedback was simply neutral and not exceptional. They were also more likely to blame unexceptional ratings on outside factors.

“In general, these studies suggest that self-compassion attenuates people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem,” the researchers concluded.

Without the pressure to be superhuman, it’s easier to accept feedback and criticism. It’s much harder to learn and improve when you believe you already know everything.

Dr. Neff said resilience may be the most remarkable benefit of self-compassion. In one study, she and her colleagues worked with veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The subjects worked with clinical psychologists who determined that nearly half of the group (42 percent) experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Using a 26-item self-report questionnaire that included statements like, “I’m tolerant of my own flaws and inadequacies,” Dr. Neff and her colleagues rated subjects’ level of self-compassion. The study concluded that the more self-compassionate veterans were, the less severe their PTSD symptoms were.

Dr. Neff added that self-compassionate people also tend to ruminate less because they can “break the cycle of negativity” by accepting their own imperfections.

Still, of course, there are many benefits to being confident, even if it’s a put-on. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that simply appearing more confident makes people believe you deserve more respect and admiration, possibly helping you reach higher social status. Another study published in Plos One found that when people are overconfident, others overrate them as smarter and more skilled. In other words, there’s something to the “fake it until you make it” phenomenon.

But self-compassion and acceptance can offer a whole suite of other benefits: It’s easier for self-compassionate people to improve on those mistakes, failures or shortcomings because they view them more objectively. Research shows self-compassion is an effective motivator in this way.

Self-compassionate people are better at owning up to their mistakes. Juliana Breines and Serena Chen of the University of California at Berkeley conducted a series of experiments to measure the effect of self-compassion on personal growth. In one study, they asked people to think about something they’ve done that made them feel guilty (lying to a partner, for example). From there, subjects were assigned to a group: self-compassion, self-esteem control or positive distraction control. The self-compassion group had to write to themselves “from a compassionate and understanding perspective.”

The self-esteem group was instructed to write about their own positive qualities, and the positive distraction group was asked to write about a hobby they enjoyed. According to the study, those who practiced self-compassion were more motivated to admit and apologize for their mistake than people in the self-esteem group or positive distraction group. The self-compassion group was also more committed to not repeating their mistakes.

But this isn’t to say you have to go around feeling inadequate. Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas, suggests a solution to the problem of overconfidence: self-compassion.

“Self-compassion is treating yourself with the same kindness, care and concern you show a loved one,” Dr. Neff said. “We need to frame it in terms of humanity. That’s what makes self-compassion so different: ‘I’m an imperfect human being living an imperfect life.’”

By that definition, self-compassion is the opposite of overconfidence. Admitting we have flaws just like anyone else keeps us connected to others, Dr. Neff said, and also keeps us from exaggerating our flaws or strengths. Unlike overconfidence, which attempts to hide self-doubt and other pessimistic shortcomings, self-compassion accepts them. Self-compassion, Mr. Barker writes, includes the benefits of confidence without the downside of delusion.

“A lot of people think self-compassion is weak, but it’s just the opposite,” Dr. Neff said. “When you’re in the trenches, do you want an enemy or an ally?” Whereas confidence is aimed at feeling adequate and powerful despite how adequate and powerful you actually are, self-compassion encourages you to accept a more objective reality.

What’s more, self-compassion has been shown to help people better empathize with others. Dr. Neff and her colleague, Tasha Beretvas at the University of Texas at Austin, have found that people rate self-compassionate partners as more caring and supportive than self-critical ones. So if your partner points out a flaw, you’ll do better to accept it and forgive yourself than beat yourself up and dwell on it.

Pulling your shoulders back is easy. Learning to be kind to yourself takes considerably more effort. In his book, Mr. Barker suggests a few ways to embrace self-compassion: Accept that you’re human, recognize your failures and frustrations, and avoid dwelling on mistakes.

“The first and most important thing to do is to notice that voice in your head – that running commentary we all have as we go about our lives,” Mr. Barker said. “Often that voice is way too critical. You beat yourself up for every perceived mistake. To be more self-compassionate, you need to notice that voice and correct it.”

That doesn’t mean lying to yourself, Mr. Barker says, but rather changing the way you talk to yourself. It may help to imagine the way a loved one would talk to you about your mistakes, then switch that voice out for a more supportive one. Keep in mind, however, that the harsh critic in your head is not your enemy. This is a common misconception that can make things worse, Dr. Neff said, because that voice is a survival mechanism that’s intended to keep you safe.

“Don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up,” she said. “We just need to learn to make friends with our inner critic.”

Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and the author of “Get Money.”

Article Link: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/smarter-living/why-self-compassion-beats-self-confidence.html?referer=https://www.google.com/

Meditation’s Antianxiety Effects Visible on Brain Imaging

Individuals with no experience in meditation who participate in mindful meditation training sessions for as little as 4 days show changes in specific brain mechanisms that correlate with a reduction in anxiety, a new imaging study shows.

“There is plenty of evidence that meditation can improve a host of issues, such as pain and cognitive function, and anxiety is perhaps at the top of the list,” explained lead author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“But what we’ve been able to do is to correlate, through imaging, changes in specific brain regions that are related to anxiety, even in a cohort of people with no anxiety or depression.”

The findings were published online April 24 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Buffer to Anxiety

For the study, Dr. Zeidan and his colleagues recruited 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of anxiety and no experience in meditation to participate in 4 20-minute training sessions to learn the technique for mindful meditation.

This involves a focus on breathing and a conscious acknowledging of distracting thoughts and emotions, combined with a decision not to react to them.

“You’re trained to focus on keeping a very straight posture and the sensations of the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen as you breathe,” Dr. Zeidan explained.

“If your mind becomes distracted, you acknowledge the distraction, let it go, and focus back on the breathing. You are regulating your emotional responses.”

Before and after each meditation training session, the participants, who included graduate students and faculty, received brain activity imaging with pulsed arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The participants also were administered the State Anxiety Inventory, a 20-item subscale of the State Trait Anxiety Inventory, before and after the brain imaging.

While the participants reported meditation-related reductions in anxiety ratings by as much as 22%, the MRIs showed anxiety relief to be associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which show decreases in activity when anxiety is present.

The vmPFC is also implicated in the alteration of contextual evaluation of affective processes, the authors write.

“Activation in the vmPFC is associated with modulating higher-order affective appraisals, including cognitive regulation of negative emotions.”

In addition, reports of greater anxiety correlated with greater default-related activity (ie, posterior cingulate cortex) on MRI, “possibly reflecting an inability to control self-referential thoughts,” the authors write.

The brain mechanisms related to the reduction of anxiety through mindful meditation in healthy people have never been identified, so the findings help confirm that the changes do occur, said Dr. Zeidan.

“It shows that mindful meditation can be sort of this buffer to anxiety. After just a brief training, you can reduce this ruminative thought process, change your attention, and change the context in how you respond to things,” he said.

Potential Payoff

Amit Sood, MD, director of research and practice in the Mayo Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, said that such changes are not unexpected over such a short period.

“I’m not surprised to see the correlations with reductions of anxiety in 4 days — other studies looking at brain structure have reported seeing these changes after just 4 to 6 hours of training,” said Dr. Sood.

“What I would be surprised to see, however, is if they were still doing it on their own after 6 months,” he noted.

“People can learn it quickly, but then they forget. A change in habit requires a lot of effort. People have to carve out the time in their busy days, and what tends to happen is will power depletion.”

The study demonstrates, however, the potential payoff, he added.

“I wouldn’t call this a landmark study, but it does validate the overall theme we’re seeing in this field,” Dr. Sood said.

“It adds another bullet point of how we can understand emotional and brain states, and eventually this may help us better classify people based on what is actually happening in the brain, beyond their displayed symptoms.”

Dr. Zeidan and Dr. Sood report no relevant financial relationships.

Meditation’s Antianxiety Effects Visible on Brain Imaging.