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Difficulties generating self-compassion: An interpretative phenomenological analysis

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The aim of the present study was to make an idiographic investigation about the difficulties that are encountered by people who self-identify as having difficulties with self-compassion. Although a growing number of studies have been carried out concerning the concept of self-compassion, most research designs were quantitative. Based on this gap, the current study expanded the scope to include a qualitative dimension of the recent literature on self-compassion and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was adopted as methodological preference, which particularly monitors the lived experience of participants. In consequence of four in-depth semi-structured interviews, four super-ordinate themes emerged; the double-edged-sword: perfectionism, the flaws of compassion, the effects of a third person, and the advantages of self-criticism. In line with pre-existing research, these findings explored the reasons behind self-undermining behaviours and misconstructions about self-compassion, which are a barrier to gentle self-talk. Furthermore, unfavourable effects of the social environment prime participants to maladaptive perfectionism and excessive self-criticism, which are considered a success formula by the participants. This study's purpose is to present a detailed roadmap about the self-destructive journey of the people with low self-compassion. It will help researchers and clinicians to develop future interventions in order to cultivate kind and encouraging attitudes in self-critical people.
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The Journal of Happiness & Well-Being, 2016, 4(1), 15-33
15
Difficulties generating self-compassion: An interpretative
phenomenological analysis
Kendisine anlayiş göstermekte zorlanan bireyler hakkinda yorumlayici
fenomenolojik analiz
Aydan Bayır
1
, Tim Lomas
2
Abstract
The aim of the present study was to make an idiographic investigation about the difficulties that are
encountered by people who self-identify as having difficulties with self-compassion. Although a growing
number of studies have been carried out concerning the concept of self-compassion, most research designs
were quantitative. Based on this gap, the current study expanded the scope to include a qualitative dimension
of the recent literature on self-compassion and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was adopted
as methodological preference, which particularly monitors the lived experience of participants. In
consequence of four in-depth semi-structured interviews, four super-ordinate themes emerged; the double-
edged-sword: perfectionism, the flaws of compassion, the effects of a third person, and the advantages of
self-criticism. In line with pre-existing research, these findings explored the reasons behind self-undermining
behaviours and misconstructions about self-compassion, which are a barrier to gentle self-talk. Furthermore,
unfavourable effects of the social environment prime participants to maladaptive perfectionism and excessive
self-criticism, which are considered a success formula by the participants. This study's purpose is to present a
detailed roadmap about the self-destructive journey of the people with low self-compassion. It will help
researchers and clinicians to develop future interventions in order to cultivate kind and encouraging attitudes
in self-critical people.
Keywords: Self-compassion, compassion, positive psychology
Özet
Bu çalışmanın amacı, kendilerine öz-anlayış göstermekte zorlandıklarını beyan eden bireylerin özgün
deneyimlerini araştırmaktır. Öz-anlayış alanında yapılan çalışmaların sayısı her geçen gün artış gösteriyor
olsa da, metodolojik oranların çoğu kantitatif araştırma yöntemlerine aittir. Dolayısıyla bu çalışma, alandaki
kalitatif çalışmaların da kapsamını genişletebilmek adına, katılımcıların yaşanmış deneyimlerinin incelendiği
Yorumlayıcı Fenomenolojik Analiz metodunu kullanmıştır. Dört yarı-yapılandırılmış derinlemesine
görüşmenin sonucunda elde edilen, dört üst tema şu şekildedir; iki ucu keskin kılıç: mükemmeliyetçilik,
anlayışın kusurları, üçüncü kişilerin etkisi ve özeleştirinin avantajları. Önceden yürütülmüş araştırmaların
sonuçları ile paralel şekilde, bu araştırmanın bulguları da kişilerin nazik bir içsel konuşmaya sahip olmasını
engelleyen iki önemli etmenin nedenlerini ortaya koymuştur; kişilerin öz-anlayışa ilişkin sahip oldukları
yanlış yorumlamalar ve kendilerine karşı sergiledikleri yıpratıcı tavırlar. Ayrıca, bu araştırma kapsamında
sosyal çevrelerinin yarattığı olumsuz etkilerin, katılımcıları maladaptif mükemmeliyetçiliğe ve aşırı öz-
eleştiriye yönelttiği; bunların da katılımcılar tarafından başarı formülü olarak tanımlandığı tespit edilmiştir.
Bu çalışmanın hedefi öz-anlayış seviyesi düşük bireylerin, kendi kendilerine zarar veren bu yolculukları
hakkında detaylı bir yol haritası sunabilmektir. Elde edilen bilgiler, özeleştirel kimselerin daha sevecen ve
cesaretli tutumlar sergilemesini sağlayacak uygulamaların oluşturulması için araştırmacılara ve klinisyenlere
katkı sağlayacaktır.
Anahtar Kelimeler: Öz-anlayış, merhamet, pozitif psikoloji
1
Msc.Positive Psychologist, Istanbul. E-mail: aydan.bayir@gmail.com
2
University of East London
Received: 03.02.2015 Accepted: 22.10.2015
© The Journal of Happiness & Well-Being (JHW)
The Journal of Happiness & Well-Being, 2016, 4(1), 15-33
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Introduction
Positive psychology, the scientific discipline that celebrates the strengths and virtues of average
people aims to assist in living a richer and more satisfying life (Diener, 2000; Seligman &
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). In this respect, as the quest to improve the functioning of human beings
(Sheldon & King, 2001), positive psychology is closely interwoven with the concept of self-
compassion (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010). To start it is illuminating to examine the etymological
roots of self-compassion. The Latin word of compati is the origin of compassion and its „com‟
part means „together with‟, whereas „pati‟ refers to „suffer with (Burnell, 2009). In other words,
compassion can be depicted as the realization, alleviation and prevention of the emotional pain,
which is experienced by self and others (Tsering, 2008). In a broad sense, the definition of self-
compassion goes hand in hand with the description of compassion (Neff, 2004). In Buddhist
tradition the prerequisite of showing kindness to others is self-compassion (Brach, 2003).
Self-compassion refers to the process of giving emotional support to yourself in a moment of
suffering (Terry & Leary, 2011). Self-compassion includes the dimensions of self-kindness versus
self-criticism, common humanity versus a sense of separation and mindfulness versus over-
identification (Neff, 2004). The first facet highlights behaving kindly and warmly towards oneself
rather than judgmentally. The second component is about perceiving one‟s fallibility as being
human rather than feeling isolated. The last one revolves around holding painful experiences with
mindful awareness instead of rejecting or over-identifying with them (Neff, 2003a).
Compassionate behaviours ensure a balanced relationship with ourselves and other people
that is needed for optimal psychological functioning, which is doctrine of positive psychology
(Blatt, 1995). Contrary to the negativity bias of traditional psychology, positive psychology puts
human strengths and potentials at the heart of its philosophy (Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi, 2000).
In accordance with this appreciative perspective, cultivation of self-compassion leads to important
qualities central to positive psychology such as kindness, happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity,
equanimity, and hope (Neff, Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007a). Furthermore past research and relevant
literature has revealed that developing self-kindness and openness towards our stress also
decreases anxiety, depression, shame, burnout and fear of failure by increasing life satisfaction,
social connectedness and emotional intelligence (Barnard & Curry, 2011; Ferguson, Kowalski,
Mack & Sabiston, 2014; Potter, Yar, Francis & Schuster, 2014).
Despite the fact that self -compassion is rooted in ancient Buddhist thought, it has gained
prominence in Western psychology recently. Although self-compassion has far-reaching
constructive impacts on mental health, it has only been explored by correlational analysis and the
absence of other methodologies has been underlined frequently by scholars ((Barnard & Curry,
2011; Neff, 2003a). In this context, choosing a phenomenological approach provides the
opportunity to examine the process and functioning of self-compassion by expanding the
experience of self-compassion (Neff, 2003a). Apart from the aforementioned benefits of this life
skill, some people have doubts about possible pitfalls of self-compassion and believe that
displaying self-kindness may give way to undesirable consequences and harm their character
(Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987) The prominent figures in the area of self-compassion, points out
three conceptual confusions that people have when generating self-compassion namely self-
indulgence, self-pity and self-centeredness( Germer & Neff, 2013)
Despite extensive research efforts, any phenomenological based qualitative study concerning
this particular topic hasn‟t been employed up until now. For instance there were no studies
featuring the phrases of difficulties while cultivating self-compassion on following literature
search engines; PsycINFO, Embase, Medline, Pubmed, Isı-Web of Science, Google Scholar,
Psycarticles, Wiley, Jstor, Taylor- francis, Eric, Sage, Proquest thesis). In order to grasp the
reasons of continuous self-judgment, this study aimed to examine personal difficulties in
generating self-compassion by utilizing Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) (Smith,
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1995). Owing to the distinctive design of IPA, micro and macro factors that influence the
cultivation of self-compassion were uncovered. This may present a valuable reference for future
studies with respect to the diversity and variability of the self-compassion experience that has been
overlooked by the relevant quantitative literature (Willig, 2001). Before giving the accounts of
participants, who identify themselves as having difficulties with self-compassion, it is essential to
take a close look at the three handicaps that were mentioned in the existing body of research.
Previous Research in the Field
When self-compassion was popularized in Western psychology, it triggered an academic
discussion about its potential traps such as narcissism, self-absorption, an excessive focus on
oneself by disregarding others (Seligman, 1995), distorted self-consciousness (Sedikkides, 1993),
upward prejudice towards out-groups (Aberson, Healy & Romero, 2000) and offensive tendencies
in the event of ego threats (Baumeister, Smart & Boden, 1996). Even though recent emerging
evidence has suggested numerous positive effects of self-compassion on emotional well-being in
direct contradiction with the hypotheses above, Neff (2003a) asserts that on a community level
people hold back from feeling self-compassion due to three reasons.
The first reason why people are reluctant to be self-compassionate is the belief that self-
bullying drives them to reach their goals, whereas self-compassion causes self-indulgence by
siding with faults (Neff, Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007b). Moreover, they think that critical internal
language protects them from becoming a slave to their hedonic impulses (Neff, 2012). According
to research findings it is the other way around; feeding self-criticism decreases motivation and
triggers procrastination and underachievement (Powers, Koesnter & Zuroff, 2007). On the
contrary self-compassion is a supportive force that enables examining failures mindfully, accept
imperfections as part of humanity and change (Neff, 2003b). Therefore, it essentially differs from
self-indulgence, which leads to harmful habits like over-eating or drug addiction (Neff,
Kirkpatrick & Rude, 2007b).
Immersion in suffering and adopting a “poor me” attitude is another barrier on the way to
self-compassion (Neff, 2004). Over-dramatization of pain prevents leaning into problems with
open eyes, which runs counter to self-compassion (Goldstein & Kornfield, 1987). Indeed self-
compassion does not share any common point with self-pity, whereas it anchors attention and
relieves suffering by diminishing self-absorption and isolation (Neff, 2003b).
Lastly self-centeredness is one of the significant impediments when people question the
concept of self-compassion. In reality self-compassion encourages social connectedness and
compassion rather than self-oriented and selfish manners (Barnard & Curry, 2011). The very
people afraid of selfishness leave room to their inner-critic and which ironically gives way to a
detached sense of self (Brown, 1999). Instead self-compassion gives unconditional affection to the
shared experience of suffering by recognizing it (Neff, 2003b).
As all of these self-constructs were obtained via quantitative research they reflect only
dominant and significant barriers regarding self-compassion. However, the cookie-cutter nature of
these studies fail to reveal insight into the subjective experience of self-compassion including
participants‟ raw words (Brodsky & Faryal, 2006). Although these specified constructs are
important pathfinders, the “one-size-fits-it-all” approach does not work in order to make a vivid
portrait of these factors that undermine self-compassion. That‟s why research that touches on
idiosyncratic differences in relation to self-compassion is needed (Neff, 2012). With the intention
of contributing to future research and interventions on self-compassion, this study sought to
understand the reasons people avoid self-compassion by asking the following research question:
„Why do some people find it difficult to generate self-compassion?‟
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Methodology
This research project aimed to explore the experience of people who define themselves as low in
self-compassion and have trouble showing kindness to themselves in case of painful events such
as failures, inadequacies, mistakes or misfortunes. In order to discover how participants are
making sense of their personal and social world and the meanings that are attributed to those
particular situations, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) was found to be the most
appropriate design. (Smith, 2008; Bogdan &Biklen, 2003). Furthermore, owing to the theoretically
flexible structure of IPA, the researcher and participants engaged in an analytic dialogue within the
framework of double hermeneutics, known as the two-stage interpretation process (Smith &
Osborn, 2008). Thus both sides were involved in the interpretation of data with their collaborative
efforts by making sense of the participants‟ world (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). The
researcher accepted participants as experiential experts and solely focused on the statements of
participants by bracketing her own world including personal feelings and biases (Merriam, 2002).
Then the analytic process which, reflected the mutual evaluation of both the analyst and the
participants, demonstrated how the analyst thinks the participant is thinking (Smith, Flowers &
Larkin, 2009). One-to-one semi-structured interviews were arranged to allow participants to speak,
think and to be heard without the limitation of highly structured interviews (Reid, Flowers &
Larkin, 2005).
Participants
According to the methodology of IPA, homogeneity and intentional selection are crucial
characteristics of samples whose participants have common experiences about specified conditions
(Willig, 2008). To ensure a rigorous analysis of each case Smith and his colleagues (2008)
recommend a sample size that covers 3 participants for the students who apply IPA for the first
time (Smith & Osborn, 2008). Research indicated that higher numbers are not indicative of better
work, which is why four participants were recruited who were between 25 to 31 years old (Smith
et al., 2009). Participants were chosen in accordance with the „snowballing technique‟ by starting
with friends and acquaintances who define themselves highly self-critical and low in self-
compassion. Participants chose the place of the interview either in public areas, their office or in
their own home in Istanbul. All participants were Turkish citizens and the numbers of males and
females were equal (See table 1 for participants‟ demographics). Much of the literature has
focused on the Western part of the world and research concerning self-compassion has generally
been conducted in US. Only a few of Turkish studies discussed the subject of self-compassion
among Turkish society Akın & Akın, 2014; İskender, 2009; Deniz, Kesici & Sümer, 2008).
However, carrying out a study in Turkey, which is a cultural bridge between the East and the
West, enriches the literature for future qualitative studies on self-compassion, which should
emphasize diverse populations (Barnard & Curry, 2011).
Table 1. Participant Demographics
Participant Alias
Age
Gender
Ethnic Origin
Education
Meriç
25
Female
Turkish
Postgraduate Degree
Barış
31
Male
Turkish
Undergraduate Degree
Timur
29
Male
Turkish
Postgraduate Degree
Ferah
25
Female
Turkish
Postgraduate Degree
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Data Collection
The data was obtained through in-depth individual semi-structured interviews. Nine open-ended
and non-directive questions along with stimulating prompts were included in the interview
schedule (See Appendix C) (Willig, 2001). The research questions were prepared in compliance
with unanswered questions that were highlighted in the future directions part of current self-
compassion studies (Yarnell & Neff, 2013). Prior to the interviews, an information sheet, which
covered the aim and scope of the study and a consent letter, which specified the right to withdraw
and the research process were provided. For IPA studies the key to successful research depends on
two dynamics; the rapport between researcher and participant and qualified and realistic
knowledge (Alderson, 2004). To this end, the researcher established an honest relationship with
the participants and articulated the objectives of the study by informing them at each step of the
research process, gathered their consent and informed them about next steps. Each interview lasted
between approximately 60 minutes and was recorded with the consent of the participants.
Interviews were made in Turkish for collecting richer and more genuine data owing to fact that
native Turkish speakers could express themselves in their mother tongue (Coolican, 2004). Just
before the interview researcher emphasized that the participant is the authority of his/her
experience, so no right or wrong answer exists (Smith et al., 2010). After the interview, as soon as
the transcription of the recordings were finished, they were sent to the participants to for a final
decision regarding their participation prior to the analysis of the data.
Data Analysis
The systematic and practical principles of IPA were implemented while analysing
phenomenological data (Smith & Osborn, 2008). The researcher embarked on the analysis by
considering that each experience represents different psychological worlds and gives distinctive
voices about shared experiences (Smith et al., 2010). That‟s why it was a priori assumption that
each concrete experience requires peculiar idiographic commitment and phenomenological
analysis (Giorgi, 2006). To accomplish this task, the researcher listened to every recording at least
once and read verbatim transcriptions over and over again to capture the semantic content of each
individual and actively engage in the social and mental world of each participant (Smith et al,
2010). After line-by-line reading, initial notes were taken which produced an inclusive and
detailed set of notes in the right hand margin (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). This kind of
interpretative note-taking on abstract concepts such as the usage of language and key phrases
illuminated the concerns of the participants (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009). Thus the familiarity
of the researcher with the story of the participants grew (Smith & Osborn, 2008). During the
process of this dynamic dialogue, the analyst engaged with each line of transcript as an insider
who discovers the experience from the participants' standpoint and an outsider who makes sense of
the participants‟ world in accordance with the principles of IPA (Reid, Flowers & Larkin, 2005).
Therefore every word, phrase or sentence that contributed to the emerging themes were identified
and labelled from two perspectives in the left hand margin (Willig, 2001). Then for the next step,
the raw data was reduced via connecting the relevant emerging themes across cases within clusters
and super-ordinate themes (Smith & Osborn, 2008).
Results
Four superordinate themes and nine subthemes emerged. These superordinate themes aimed to
capture the kind of obstacles encountered by people who identify themselves as self-critical
towards their mistakes and imperfections. To this end, each theme was supported with verbatim
extracts that illustrated the underlying causes of participants‟ negative self-talk. In order to
facilitate readability and prevent any anonymity violation, utterances, hesitations and pauses of
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participants were replaced by dotted lines (…) and words, which might expose identity, were
eliminated.
Table 2. Overview of superordinate and sub-themes
Superordinate-theme Sub-themes
1. Double-Edged Sword:
Perfectionism
1.1: Sense of Inadequacy: “There is a
greedy monster inside me that says I
am not good enough”
1.2: The fear of failure: “How dare I
make this small mistake? I checked it
30 times!”
1.3: Favorable results of
perfectionism: "People are astonished
because of the quality of my reports
2. The flaws of self-compassion
2.1: “Self compassionate people are
devil-may-care””
2.2: “Self compassionate people are
naughty and selfish”
3.The effects of a third person
3.1: Parental effect: “I am a failure for
my father”
3.2: Destructive comments at the work
place: “They never appreciate my
accomplishments”
4.The advantages of self-criticism
4.1: Self-criticism as a shield: “It protects
me from future mistakes
4.2: Self criticism as a key of success: “It
counteracts my laziness”
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1. Double- Edged Sword: Perfectionism
This theme addresses participants‟ accounts of their perfectionist tendencies and how they have
difficulty to leave space for their imperfections and personal flaws as parts of common humanity,
namely the third component of self-compassion. In the context of the present theme, they
underlined that they spend hours perfecting something regardless of its importance and how much
they value excellence despite of its self-destructive impacts.
1.1: Sense of Inadequacy: “There is a greedy monster inside me that says I am not
good enough”
Throughout the interviews, three of the four participants repeatedly described their sense of
inadequacy and their inability to acknowledge their limits. Timur‟s account provides a clear
demonstration of self-imposed unrealistic targets and the vicious cycle of trying harder:
“For instance I am a nut about reading history. When I concentrate on a period of time…Let‟s say
Emperor Augustus‟ times in Rome…You know I am literally absorbing all resources…Like
consuming them… There is no pleasure in it any more. After a certain point, I am like a machine.
Everything… Inside my memory… It is really weird, it becomes like a monster in my mind.”
As demonstrated in the above quote Timur symbolically equates the monster with his
perfectionism. The words he stresses such as “absorbing”, “consuming” are also critical indicators
of his excessive perfectionist attitudes. While consuming sources of history, at the same time, he
consumes his own psychological resources and all his gratification is swept away by feeling like a
machine, which is designed to reach unattainable goals in Timur‟s terminology. The following
excerpt from Ferah seems to hint at a similar mentality, which fights with the monster of
perfectionism:
“When I meet a goal, it is not the end for me… Indeed, I abandon one incompetence and for
another one. And I never feel saturated.”
Within Ferah‟s account, the never-ending circle of inadequacy mentioned above, can be
observed easily. Her perfectionist monster always feels hungry and seeks other inadequacies.
While participants wrestle with feelings of inadequacy, their perfectionism was also nurtured by
the fear of making mistakes, which is what the second sub-theme revolves around.
1.2: The fear of failure: “How dare I to make this mistake? I checked it 30 times!”
This sub-theme was one of the most pronounced in all participants‟ narratives that focused on the
assumption participants' had: „Mistakes equal failure.‟ As illustrated in the extract below, Ferah
emphasizes the troubling effects of a current mistake that she made at work. Furthermore
throughout the interview she explained her anxious feelings that were elicited because of her
mistakes.
I miscalculated something recently and this result was sent to every user at work. Then one of my
colleagues showed me my mistake. At that moment, a chill ran down my back. Cos it was my
mistake. I felt unsuccessful. This was a very small mistake… I could not throw in towel because of
such a tiny mistake. How could I have miscalculated? It was so easy...”
Similar to other respondents, Ferah also talked about the tedious workload and great
responsibilities. However, for her, these conditions cannot be excuses for being gentle with
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22
herself. Even a slight fault cannot be accepted and led her to feel terrible. To avoid these kinds of
minor imperfections, Timur and Meriç reported that they write down everything to not forget any
single detail. However, inevitably their belief that I must do everything without mistake‟
collapses and following extracts show their initial reaction to these faults:
Meriç:
“Everything should be alright… I should not make any mistake… But it really challenges me…
You should see my office My calendar, my reminders etc. But despite of this, sometimes I miss
something… I say myself: “How could you forget? How dare you do that? Why your mind is such
a big mess?”
Timur:
“You need to ponder many tasks you know… When everything besieges your brain, I am not able
to prioritize. I try to do everything at the same time, but nothing happens at the end. Even though I
get my hands on something, something is missing. And when it occurs, I feel stupid…”
Both participants don‟t consider mistakes as part of the learning process and inevitable
aspect of common humanity. Their self-criticism adds fuel to fire and removes them from realistic
self-appraisal. Therefore they ignore their accomplishments and they label themselves
unsuccessful or foolish because of trivial mistakes. However the flip side of perfectionism trap
lures participants in and so they downplay the downsides of perfectionism as shown in the
following theme.
1.3: Favourable results of perfectionism: “People are astonished because of the
quality of my reports
Even though all participants have a successful career and high abilities in diverse areas of interest,
they tend to devalue their uniqueness and focus on errors. Generally they take over high
responsibilities but a slight misfortune obliterates their success. On the other hand, reactions by
others to their excellent work serve as motivation for them to be perfectionist. Timur's extract was
most striking in this respect:
“When I prepare a report at work, people are astonished… My reports are extremely ordered…
Even an idiot can understand it with ease. This is how I am at work… I like to work in that way…”
The above quote reflects how Timur is unconsciously motivated by external validation. It
feeds his perfectionism. Actually the feeling which forces him to call himself stupid and the sense
that reinforces him to create defect-free report originates from same the source, namely
perfectionism. Although all participants are very sensitive to making mistakes, they are not able to
notice the invisible saboteur behind their over-the-top achievements, which is maladaptive
perfectionism. When the questions addressed the role of self-compassion in their life, participants
pointed out that perfectionism eliminates self-kindness by isolating them from humanity because
of their mistakes.
2. The flaws of self-compassion
Three salient sub-themes were grouped in order to construct this superordinate theme that
highlights the assumptions and misconceptions of participants concerning self-compassion. In the
following passages, participants describe their subjective perspective about possible pitfalls of
self-compassion.
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2.1: “Self compassionate people are devil-may-care and justify themselves no matter
what”
Even though each account is unique beyond dispute, all participants mentioned that being
insightful and understanding of mistakes might be a characteristic of reckless people. This
misperception of self-compassion was very prevalent in Barış‟s account:
“For me, a self-compassionate person is one who does not care a button. You know… Without a
care in the world… This type of person always forgives himself… Is always tolerant… Because, he
always blames others… Or life forces him to make mistakes…”
This extract seems to indicate that, according to Barış‟s perspective, cultivating an authentic
intimacy with your faults undermines your honest and mindful evaluation of the circumstances.
Moreover from Barış‟s standpoint, self-compassion is like an escape route for oblivious and
unconcerned people who are inclined to accuse others or life conditions for their personal faults in
an irresponsible manner. In a similar vein Meriç described her views about one of her friends that
she calls an extremely self-compassionate person:
“For instance one of my friends from our department, I think she is the most thick-skinned and
care free person ever! Sometimes I sigh and want to be like her… Then I recognize that I don‟t like
her temperament… She always forgets and behaves very superficially... After that I ask myself,
whether accepting your faults or neglecting them like her gives way to being untidy, unsystematic
and unsuccessful or not…”
This narrative again draws our attention to the participants‟ reluctance concerning self-
compassion. Her understanding of self-compassion corresponds to being soft-headed, shallow and
inconsistent performance. Early in the interview she also expressed her fear of neglecting
destructive aspects of the situation by showing self-kindness towards her mistakes. Below, we will
see how other misconceptions about self-compassion alienate participants from gaining an
empathetic understanding of themselves.
2.2: Self-compassionate people are naughty, selfish and egocentric
The experiences of participants in this study confirm a significant assumption people have; taking
a warm attitude toward oneself opens the door to spoilt, self-oriented and egoistic behaviours.
Within this mind-set we see how for Barış, self-compassion and self-centeredness are equal:
“If someone is tolerant of his mistakes, he may do it without any rational reason… Just because of
boldness, selfishness… The ego is more about being tolerant towards yourself… When
understanding myself, I flatter my ego… If I have a stronger ego, I can tolerate myself easily. On
the contrary, I cannot condone my mistakes unless my ego is high… However some people whose
ego goes through the roof, feel completely innocent and do not put themselves in someone else‟s
shoes…”
Within this multi-layered account of Barış, he considers self-compassion equal to various
states; being a slave to the ego, unquestioned acceptance of mistakes, overlooking others‟ needs.
The noteworthy point is, according to his view, using self-bullying for faults is the sign of a low
ego. This assumption is echoed in Timur‟s argument:
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“I don‟t know… When self-compassion enters your life, in my opinion, your arrogance will
increase necessarily… Probably you will become more snooty and conceited… These personal
traits may define your life… This may happen…”
Timur‟s extract above illustrates how cultivating self-compassion fosters a superiority
complex. Appreciating your admirable qualities and giving yourself a hug in a painful event paves
the way for being preoccupied with yourself and seeing yourself as the center of the universe by
scorning others. Both of these views may partly present some clues why participants stay clear
from self-compassion and prefer to be assaulted by their inner critics.
3. The effects of a third person
This superordinate theme illuminates the momentous place that other people take in the
participants‟ perception of self- worth. It furthermore reveals how comments of a third person and
a hypercritical environment push participants to become their harshest critic and marginalize self-
compassion.
3.1: Parental effect: “I am a failure for my father
This subtheme elucidates how critical and unsupportive parents become a turning point in
participants' perfectionist personality and introduce a relentless approach to their mistakes. In
Ferah‟s narratives the humiliation of her verbally abusive father is constantly recounted. The
excerpt below illustrates the unbearable feeling of disappointing parents:
“My sister attended an academically superior school to mine. And my parents imposed their
standards on me and always criticized me, coz my academic achievement was not enough for
them. They lack the ability to appreciate… I think this propelled me to feel a sense of
inadequacy…”
The comparison that was made by her parents and their rigid adherence to their perfectionist
standard created pressure on Ferah and explain the roots of her intense self-criticism. Most
tragically pronounced, her metaphor of a “barrier” highlight the devastating effects of the
comments of her father:
“My father always warns me not to eat much and tells me how fat I am… He is like a barrier in
front of me that keeps me from praising myself, love my body…”
It is significant to underline that sometimes, Ferah shifted from the subject of “I” to she” while
expressing her experience. When I asked the reason for this switch, she said that, “she” sentences
actually belong to her father. However, Ferah internalizes the critical voice of her father and
renders it as her own statements. Timur‟s account also showed how parenting style considerable
influences him:
My parents are really risk-aversive. They always try to anticipate three, five steps beyond. They
raised me with an incredible sense of responsibility. Thus sometimes I feel anxious because I am
ruminating twelve steps ahead
Throughout the interview, Timur offered a range of examples about his obsessive interest in
predictions in order to minimize the possibility of mistakes. As the above extract shows, his overly
cautious behaviours were instilled by his parents. Besides, Timur regards his father as a point of
reference in terms of his personal growth and his attitudes towards self-compassion.
The Journal of Happiness & Well-Being, 2016, 4(1), 15-33
25
“Me and my father really look like each other… When I look at his developmental process
towards self-compassion… He is not very self-compassionate… Therefore I won‟t be as well...”
These quotes encapsulate the key position of parents on the personality development of their
children. This again emphasizes how external comments may jeopardize participants‟ life
achievements, lifestyles and their view of life.
3.2: Destructive comments at the work place: “They never appreciate my
accomplishments”
This subtheme draws upon the reports of participants that illuminate the importance of
environmental influences at work. Two participants frequently described that demanding and
critical managers put pressure on them and broke their spirit to progress willingly. Thus
resentment and frustration emerged within the accounts of Ferah and Meriç.
Meriç:
“Do you know what‟s the problem? Throughout this whole year, our feedbacks highlighted our
failures… Then we explained that to our managers… If they would mention our strengths as well,
we would improve them There was no sentence like “You are great!”… Only “There is a
deficiency or failure here, correct it!” May be that‟s one of the reasons of my self-criticism…”
Ferah:
“I made a mistake at work and my manager told me to call top executives and send an e-mail to
everyone to apologize This was really unpleasant… Cos when you accomplish something, they
appreciate it but nobody knows about your success… But when a tiny error happens, everyone is
informed and they reacted with You made a big mistake, this is too bad!‟ No doubt, this is really
dispiriting… So you are trivialized more in the appreciation of people… Maybe having no value in
the eyes of others boosted the pressure that I exert on myself….”
These two quotes clearly show that magnifying mistakes and accusatory habits coexist at
work and both of these immediate causes discourage participants to engage with work. What is
notable is that a problem-focused culture of managers also led them to question their self-worth. In
the atmosphere of hostile comments, a downward spiral of negative emotion was triggered. This is
closely related with the fear of losing the respect of others and seeing oneself as a person who has
negative self-beliefs without any compassion.
4. The advantages of self-criticism
Two salient subthemes were found in the final superordinate theme, which identifies deceptive
aspects of self-criticism. These aspects lure participants with the prospect of making fewer
mistakes and having more success. All four accounts explicitly stated how their cruel self-
judgment prevents similar future situations and berating themselves reinforces success.
4.1: Self-criticism as a shield: “It alerts and protects me from future mistakes”
This subtheme shows why participants prefer to be their own brutal critic rather than displaying a
kind and compassionate attitude. In the extract below, Barış labels his critical voice as a protective
force that prevents future errors:
The Journal of Happiness & Well-Being, 2016, 4(1), 15-33
26
“If I become understanding towards myself, I may do the things that I should not do, although I
had already known their unfavourable consequences. Understanding yourself may not be good at
any given moment… Don‟t know… At some point, your inner critic protects you… It ensures you
don't repeat your previous mistakes… Your genuine anger, rooted in frustration is such a
significant experience… They sometimes save us. One day if I take a hammering, this anger will
warn me and will tell me that „You did this fault before, then you blow up…‟ ”
Barış‟s account hints at a unique viewpoint that regards self-criticism as an effective
strategy. For him, the alarm of anger will ring in the case of emergency in order to remind him of
his past mistakes and will guard against future ones. Holding his tongue will protect him from his
painful past and thus his cold criticism will convert into internal power directing him towards the
desired behaviour. Under these circumstances, his prejudice against self-compassion does not
seem very surprising. In line with Barış‟s account, Meriç also posits plausible reasons for her self-
criticism:
If I behave in a kind way towards myself, all of my action would have been… I mean I would act
without considering the outcomes That‟s why I want to put it within the bounds of criticism…
Ummm I think, you know I always tried to poke…. motivate myself in this way.”
These reports confirm that participants want to devote their critical energy to previous
hurtful experiences with the aim learning from past mistakes. That‟s why they prefer to shut their
eyes to the damaging effects of self-criticism and to hold back from cultivating self-compassion.
4.2: Self-criticism as a key of success: “It curbs my laziness”
Another salient concept that appeared in the current study was the subjective impression of self-
criticism as a stimulator to jump-start productivity and commitment. Participants held that brilliant
performance depends on a simple yet powerful way; continual self-judgment. An example of this
view is illustrated in the extract below that belongs to Meriç;
In my mind, I desperately link failure and being kind to yourself. My role models are generally
people who are not very understanding towards themselves… I believed that the best result could
be attained by self-criticism. I believed that it would promote me. May be it did, may be it did
not… Yet my laziness was curbed… However now I am exhausted because of this harsh voice… I
am not even able to recognize my accomplishments… But if I would be a carefree person I
probably wouldn't pursue my postgraduate studies... And now I am happy being a master
student…”
The quote above details how Meriç sees self-criticism, which ameliorates lazy inclinations
and eliminates possible failures. She fuses failure and self-kindness and recognizes them as
intertwined notions. Furthermore in her framework, role models are the ones who reach the peak
of their career beating themselves up. Although she reports how falling into this trap of self-
criticism puts her in a burdensome position, she is glad about her academic success that is reaped
by belittling herself. This kind of dilemma can also be observed in the narratives of Timur;
“What happens if I become an understanding person towards myself… I cannot attain my
goals…”
Basically Timur thinks that giving a pep-talk to yourself is a counterproductive solution for
success and the only intelligent alternative is using his imperative internal language that he
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27
mentioned several times. Both respondents don‟t let go of their resentment and liberate themselves
from their oppressive attitudes with the intention of motivating themselves. That‟s why eradicating
self-criticism and cultivating self-compassion is a problem in their eyes.
Discussion
Given the results of this study, for the very first time difficulties that are encountered while
generating self-compassion were explored using IPA. Subjectively rich data that addresses the
particular experiences of each participant about self-compassion and its relation to maladaptive
perfectionism, the social atmosphere and supposed advantages of self-criticism was attained and
can therefore enhance existing literature. Four salient superordinate themes namely, Double-Edged
Sword: Perfectionism, The flaws of self-compassion, The effects of a third person, The advantages
of self-criticism, were identified, described and supported by existing literature.
The first superordinate theme Double-Edged Sword: Perfectionism, indicated the most
common facet of participants‟ experiences with perfectionism. The finding that preoccupation
with pursuit of excellence, rejecting limits and fallible aspects of being human obstruct self-
kindness is in line with previous findings. Existent studies articulated that higher levels of self-
compassion relate to lower levels of maladaptive perfectionism (Heffernan et al., 2010; Neff,
Kirkpatrick, Rude; 2007a; Pembroke, 2012; Preece, 2006). However, on a deeper level, the link
between neurotic perfectionism and self-compassion is largely correlational rather than causal
according to data from previous research. In this study perfectionism was shown to be an
underlying reason for the lack of self-compassion rather than a mere negative correlation.
Moreover, according to transcripts, participants‟ problems with soothing themselves when
confronted with their inadequacies gives rise to anxiety and depression (Gilbert & Proctor, 2005).
The interview reports revealed that this situation stems from over-identification with pain and
attachment to negative emotions falls within the definition of the mindfulness component of self-
compassion (Wada & Park, 2009). However burying deep pain and rejecting personal
shortcomings as a part of common humanity also came from feeling overwhelming fear about the
possibility of failure, which was a salient concept across participants‟ accounts (Neff, Hseih, &
Dejitthirat, 2005). Besides an anticipated area was discovered within present research, which
showed how perfectionism forms a comfort zone of success for participants. Moreover results of
present study indicated that participants unconsciously commit themselves to their unrealistic
standards owing to its favourable consequences that evoke the admiration of people.
Controversial results have been documented widely by pre-existing research, which
attempted to explore the core of perfectionism. In their study Baker and McNulty (2011) have
confirmed participants of present study and they asserted that self-criticism, which is diminished
by self-compassion is the main source of perfectionism and the prime mover of achievement.
Plenty of researchers disagreed and suggested that high personal standards associate with an
adaptive form of perfectionism (Blatt, 1995; Rice & Stuart, 2010). Neff (2003b) pointed out that
targeting high personal standards and having low levels of self-criticism conform with the concept
of self-compassion. Despite of this academic debate, all respondents said the same thing and
consider the notion of perfectionism as single concept without analysing its neurotic and adaptive
members. Besides, in their mind, the desirable outcomes of perfectionism give way to external
validation and this situation renders self-compassion as a conflicting concept that may destroy
their cherished success.
The second superordinate theme, The flaws of self-compassion, is perhaps the most
anticipated theme as mentioned in the introduction. The participant experiences indicated that non-
judgmental understanding and displaying of self-warmth might yield to excessive self-
centeredness and ego concerns, less sensitivity to pain of others and higher levels of
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28
irresponsibility (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007a; Barnard & Curry, 2011). Contrary to these
popular beliefs of participants, Davidson‟s (2007) scientific study showed that self-compassion
curtails egoistic-self focus by increasing interpersonal perspective taking, without negating the
sense of self. Furthermore improved feelings of autonomy, competence and social connectedness
of self-compassionate individuals lead them to take greater responsibility (Leary et al., 2007).
Additionally their increased capacity for self-care showed itself in the fact that self-compassionate
individuals express more compassion to others as well (Reyes, 2011).
Destructive environmental effects and hostile comments of people emerged as the third
superordinate theme, The effects of a third person, clearly outlines why self-criticism became the
focus rather than self-acceptance for participants. In this context, childhood is fundamentally
important because an individual‟s ability to experience empathy and recognition of internal feeling
states improves during this period and is shaped by early caregivers (Stolorow, Brandchaft &
Atwood, 1987). This means that low levels of self-compassion vividly reflect the attitudes of
hypercritical, abusive and contemptuous parents (Brown, 1999). These findings offer support to
participants' experience about how maternal criticism and dysfunctional families negatively
influence self-behaviours of participants (Neff & McGeehee, 2010).
In addition to this the results of a number of studies underline the fundamental effects of the
social environment. Dunkley and colleagues (2006) established that evaluative comments of
others make perfectionism, self-criticism and various psychopathologies more likely. Furthermore
Neff and Vonk (2009) highlighted that cognitive and emotional reactions of people with low levels
of self-compassion are more defensive and negative unlike self-compassionate people. Therefore,
they receive less recognition and appreciation than self-compassionate people who openheartedly
acknowledge their flaws and inadequacies (Neff & Vonk, 2009). This data suggests a conceivable
explanation for the latter part of third superordinate theme, which deals with the negative impacts
of demoralizing criticism on participants.
Lastly, the fourth superordinate theme, The advantages of self-criticism, elaborated upon
stubborn tendencies of participants to adopt a self-critical mode. Although, current results have
revealed drawbacks of self-criticism namely lifelong risk of depression, posttraumatic stress
disorder (Amir & Swisa, 2005), self-harm (Babiker & Arnold, 1997), social anxiety (Cox et al.,
2000) and numerous psychological disorders (Longe et al., 2010), respondents of this study were
inclined to focus their critical attention rather than cast compassionate attention on themselves
(Falconer, King & Brewin, 2015; Norem, 2008; Yamaguchi, Kim & Akutsu, 2014). As mentioned
in the results section, the interesting rationale behind this preference was, that in their opinion,
self-critical people are able to cope with life‟s troubles with greater ease. The metaphor of a shield
that was mentioned in the last theme, was critical with regards to truly understand why participants
consider self-criticism as a protector that prevents future problems. For them, a critical internal
language serves like activating a problem-solving switch in the case of any possible failure. To the
best of our knowledge, this particular insight that highlights the tempting effect of self-criticism
and introduces an uncharted domain on the realm of self-compassion. Also participants claimed
that a critical outlook is a technique of motivation that curbs their laziness (Gilbert, McEwan,
Catarino, Baião & Palmeira, 2014). Factually high self-compassion levels are associated with less
fear of failure, more motivation to improve and being more watchful not to repeat past mistakes
(Breines & Chen, 2012). However, participants close the door to self-compassion due to above
convictions that were cited in all themes and one concise reason that is put in a nutshell by Meriç:
“I should not make any mistake…But this is too compelling… Cos… I don‟t know how to live
otherwise…”
Limitations
As elaborated above, this phenomenological study represented the first IPA attempt to explore the
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29
difficulties that people experience cultivating self-compassion. Furthermore it is academically
important because of the scarcity of qualitative research in this area. However a number of
limitations and weaknesses need to be acknowledged due to the nature of the IPA methodology
and the characteristics of the sample group.
The first challenge was the time limitation during the interviews. During the interviews,
some participants reported that they have never thought about the reasons behind their self-
criticism or the main cause of the problems they face while generating self-compassion. So they
requested more time to think about some questions, yet in order to prevent waste of time, they then
gave their answers based on their assumptions and predictions.
Another limitation was about the idiographic structure of IPA and the demographic factors.
Although IPA lays the groundwork for rich and in-depth first- person accounts (Smith, Flowers &
Larkin, 2009. p.56), it is limited to a small number of participants. Therefore this research only
focused on subjective experiences of four participants, which come from a similar educational and
socio-economic background with ages ranging from 25 to 31. Despite the idiosyncratic focus of
IPA it should be taken into account when interpreting the impact of the findings of this study.
Finally, the interviews were held in Turkish to provide freedom of expression for
participants. Crucially the concept of “self-compassion” does not exist in Turkish. That‟s why
researcher paraphrased this concept in the information sheet as far as possible. Another important
point is that the word “compassion” also has more than one meaning in Turkish, which differs
from the meaning defined in the Buddhist tradition. That‟s why throughout the interviews, the
researcher paraphrased the word of self-compassion according to the definition in the introduction.
Hence the linguistic disparity between Turkish and English was a considerable limitation.
Conclusion
The objective of this research was to illuminate the ideas and convictions that self-critical people
hold when attempting to generate self-compassion. The qualitative strategy of this research filled a
methodological gap. Although various parameters cause subtle but seismic changes in self-
behaviour, four salient themes were deducted via phenomenological-based analysis. These results,
which along with previous literature, found that maladaptive form of perfectionism,
misconstructions about self-compassion, destructive social surroundings and supposed beliefs
about self-criticism prevent self-kindness and compassionate manners. The key point is
participants use self-bullying because they assume self-blame and self-criticism are central and
indispensable parts of success and major precautions against possible mistakes.
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Appendix A
Interview Questions
1. What does the term „self-compassion‟ mean to you?
2. If you had to describe the role of self-compassion in your daily life, what would you say?
3. Could you tell me about a recent experience when you felt that something did not go as well
as you hoped, for example you made a mistake or did something wrong?
Prompts:
a. -What happened?
b. -How did you feel?
c. -How did you cope?
4. Is there anyone or any event or any thought that create difficulty for you to cultivate self-
compassion? Tell me about how this person, event or thought influenced you.
Prompts:
a. -In what ways?
b. -How did you feel?
5. Could you describe a typical situation that led up you to judgmental position rather than kind
towards yourself?
Prompts:
a. -What happened?
b. -How did you feel?
c. -How did you cope?
6. Could you define me how do you behave yourself when you are in a painful situation?
Prompts:
a. -What happened?
b. -How did you feel?
c. -How did you cope?
7. Tell me about a time when you acted compassionately towards
a. someone else
b. yourself
Prompts:
a. What happened?
b. How did you feel?
8. How do you feel when you are imagining yourself as a self-compassionate person?
9. Where do you see your self-behaviours in two years?
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