It feels bad to know that you’ve messed up, especially when other people have to pay a price for your actions. Unfortunately, this feeling is something that most of us end up experiencing at one point or another — when we’re placed on a team with other people at school or at a job, for instance, and make a mistake that forces our team members to do more work as a result.
However, recent research, published in Social Psychology by James Wirth at Ohio State University and his colleagues, shows that there is a trait that can reduce those negative feelings, called “self-compassion”.
Self-compassion is composed of three components: self-kindness, which involves showing kindness to yourself, mindfulness, which involves keeping your emotions balanced, and common humanity, which involves recognising that everyone experiences challenges. Past work has shown that self-compassion can be beneficial from an emotional perspective, for example by protecting people who write about their emotional pain, and by helping people with chronic pain lead happier and more active lives.
To see whether self-compassion could also protect people from the negative feelings that occur when they perform poorly in a way that hurts their group, the researchers conducted a series of online experiments, each with around 160 to 300 participants.
In the first experiment, participants imagined playing a trivia game as part of a team. Some imagined that they performed as well as their team members, while others imagined that they performed poorly, and thus reduced the team’s number of correct answers.
In the second experiment, participants actually engaged in a team task, in which they saw three words, and had to find a fourth word that linked them together. Some participants were told that they performed as well as their team members (who were actually computer agents), while others were told that they performed worse and that as a result, the team did not get enough answers correct and would have to answer more questions as a penalty.
In both cases, when people performed (or imagined performing) poorly, they experienced more negative emotions, suffered from lower self-esteem, felt more burdensome and ostracised, and expected more exclusion from other group members.
However, self-compassion significantly reduced these negative outcomes: participants who were high in self-compassion did not experience as many negative emotions and concerns over being a burden as those who were low in self-compassion.
In two further experiments, the researchers attempted to untangle the effects of poor performance from those of harming one’s group. In one experiment, participants were either asked to recall a time when their poor performance harmed members of their group, or when they performed poorly but not in a way that harmed their group. In the other, participants engaged in the same word creativity task as before. This time, however, all participants were told that they performed worse than their team members, but some were told that their team would be impacted by this, while others were told that there would be no harm to their team.
These studies showed that when their poor performance also harmed other members of their group, participants felt more negative social consequences, such as feeling burdensome. Again, self-compassion seemed to buffer against these negative effects.
The study does have some limitations, as the researchers themselves note. For example, the experiments were conducted in an online setting, where participants did not directly experience the in-person social interaction that plays an important role in these kinds of situations. Still, it’s encouraging that most of the study’s main findings replicated across all of the individual experiments.
Overall, these findings help explain why some people feel crushed when they make mistakes, while others manage to cope well. Furthermore, they suggest that practising self-compassion might help you cope with difficult situations where you feel you are being a burden on others. For example, if you’re part of a group project and you make a mistake, you could benefit from reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself if you do so. If you’re someone who’s not naturally self-compassionate, this may be difficult, but as the researchers note, with enough practice, it might be possible to increase your self-compassion over time.
Post written for BPS Research Digest by Itamar Shatz. Itamar is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University. He writes about psychology and philosophy that have practical applications at Effectiviology.com