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The Journal of Positive Psychology
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Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror
increases the efficacy of a self-compassion
manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect
and heart rate variability
Nicola Petrocchi , Cristina Ottaviani & Alessandro Couyoumdjian
To cite this article: Nicola Petrocchi , Cristina Ottaviani & Alessandro Couyoumdjian (2017)
Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror increases the efficacy of a self-compassion
manipulation in enhancing soothing positive affect and heart rate variability, The Journal of Positive
Psychology, 12:6, 525-536, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2016.1209544
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1209544
Published online: 14 Jul 2016.
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THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY, 2017
VOL. 12, NO. 6, 525536
Compassion at the mirror: Exposure to a mirror increases the ecacy of a self-
compassion manipulation in enhancing soothing positive aect and heart rate
Nicola Petrocchia,b, Cristina Ottavianib and Alessandro Couyoumdjiana
aDepartment of Psychology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy; bIRCCS Santa Lucia Foundation, Rome, Italy
We tested whether a mirror could enhance the ecacy of a self-compassion manipulation in
increasing soothing positive aect and heart rate variability (HRV). Eighty-six participants generated
four phrases they would use to soothe and encourage their best friend. Second, they described an
episode where they criticized themselves and were assigned to one of three conditions: (a) repeat
the four phrases to themselves while looking at the mirror; (b) repeat the four phrases to themselves
without the mirror; (c) look at themselves in the mirror without repeating the phrases. Participants
in condition (a) reported higher levels of ‘soothing’ positive aect and HRV compared to participants
in conditions (b) and (c). The eect of the ‘phrases at the mirror’ manipulation on soothing aect was
mediated by increased common humanity. The mirror enhances the ecacy of this self-compassion
manipulation in activating the soothing aect system connected with parasympathetic nervous
Self-criticism has been dened as an integrated system
of beliefs, emotions and attitudes that people might acti-
vate towards themselves mainly in response to failures or
setbacks (Gilbert, 2005; Whelton & Greenberg, 2005). This
process often takes the form of negative and coercive self-
talk and inner hostile voices, which stimulate the same
neurophysiological systems as criticism generated by oth-
ers (Gilbert, Baldwin, Irons, Baccus, & Palmer, 2006; Longe
et al., 2010). As a result of the self-harassing dynamic,
highly self-critical individuals are thought to have an
over-stimulated and poorly regulated threat emotional
system, with subsequent negative aectivity and under-
developed capacities for compassionate self-soothing
activities (thoughts, self-talk and images; Gilbert & Procter,
2006). Even if self-monitoring and self-correcting activi-
ties are normal components of non-clinical psychological
functioning, more severe forms of self-criticism have been
examined as a vulnerability risk factor for most psycho-
pathological conditions (for a review see Schanche, 2013).
Several therapeutic approaches, such as Compassion
Focused Therapy (CFT; Gilbert, 2010, 2014) and Mindful
Self-Compassion training (MSC; Ne & Germer, 2013), have
been developed with the aim of increasing compassion
and self-compassion as an antidote to self-criticism. The
primary aim of these approaches is to increase acceptance
and compassion for one’s own distress, and to strengthen
the ability to refocus and consciously activate ‘safeness’
self-signaling systems (Boersma, Håkanson, Salomonsson,
& Johansson, 2014). These self-soothing activities oper-
ate through the stimulation of particular types of positive
aect (contentment, safeness, lovability, serenity) associ-
ated with the attachment and caring motivational systems.
Physiologically, they are connected to increased activity
of the vagus nerve and corresponding higher heart rate
variability (Porges, 2007). These types of warm positive
feelings have been found to be distinct from energizing
positive aect (happiness, excitement, enthusiasm) associ-
ated with achievement, excitement and resource seeking
(Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005; Gilbert etal., 2008;
Panksepp, 1998). It is the safeness and contentment types
of positive aect that have been specically linked to less
depression, anxiety and self-criticism, as well as more
self-reassurance and attachment secureness (Gilbert etal.,
2008; Kelly, Zuro, Leybman, & Gilbert, 2012). Thus, stimu-
lating the capacity for feeling a positive sense of content-
ment, safeness, and self-reassurance is the primary goal
of compassion-oriented interventions (Germer, 2009;
One of the practices employed in CFT and other com-
passion-focused trainings is ‘compassionate self-talk’
(Gilbert, 2010). Subjects are asked to become aware of
© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
compassion; heart rate
variability; mirror; self-talk;
Received 31 December 2015
Accepted 14 June 2016
CONTACT Nicola Petrocchi email@example.com
526 N. PETROCCHI ET AL.
exposure tool has been extensively documented in the
treatment of eating disorders (see, e.g. Hildebrandt, Loeb,
Troupe, & Delinsky, 2012). It is also currently employed to
improve positive self-awareness and self-representation in
subjects diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (Du
& Flattery, 2014). Mahoney (1991) has described a tech-
nique in which clients are asked to look at themselves in
a mirror while spontaneously describing their experience,
with the goals of enhancing clients’ self-exploration and
facilitating the emergence of a new ‘dialoguing with one
self’ (Williams, Diehl, & Mahoney, 2002, p. 23). There is some
evidence that this technique improves awareness of the
current emotional experience (Williams etal., 2002) and
self-acceptance (Beskow & Palm, 1998).
A similar technique, called ‘self-mirroring’ has been
recently described by Vinali etal. (2015): patients are asked
to watch a video of their face while recalling a signicant
life event. The video recording is supposed to ‘mirror’ their
emotions and appraisal patterns, improving patients’ abil-
ity to recognize and compassionately empathize with their
own emotional distress.
The present study
Given these preliminary results that both compassionate
self-talk and the mirror may positively impact self-relating,
we hypothesized that the eects of compassionate self-
talk might be amplied by performing this exercise in
front of a mirror. The repetition of positive armations in
front of a mirror as a way to increase self-acceptance has
been extensively described and recommended for years in
numerous ‘pop psychology’ books, websites, and self-help
resources (see, e.g. Hay, 1991; Hay House, 2015), but to the
best of our knowledge, it has never been empirically tested.
Moreover, Gilbert (2010) suggested that self-compassion
practices involving the repetition of self-compassionate
phrases might be potentiated by the use of a mirror as
a way to ‘externalize’ the ‘object’ of our compassion (i.e.
the self). In fact, eye-gaze and facial expressions are
salient components of our empathic responses (Cowan,
Vanman, & Nielsen, 2014). Considering that self-related
stimuli (e.g. our own face) are more relevant to us than
stimuli related to others (Brédart, Delchambre, & Laureys,
2006), and that the sense of self seems to be inherently
linked to one’s own face (Porciello etal., 2014), looking
at our own eyes and face while experiencing compassion
towards ourselves might impact our psychophysiology
more than just verbalizing self-compassionate phrases.
Moreover, empathetic processes are supported by, and
require, the embodied expression and communication of
emotions that only the face provides (Cole, 2001). Thus,
wehypothesized that the use of a self-reection tool might
improve our ability to empathize alsowith ourselves.
the content and emotional tone of their ‘internal dialogue’
when they face setbacks, and to consciously render it
more compassionate, encouraging and non- judgmentally
accepting of the self. Intentionally creating compassion-
ate self-statements after a self-criticism induction has
proven to be eective in increasing positive aect, without
undermining people’s willingness to accept responsibility
for the negative actions, and in improving perception of
similarity to other people (common humanity; Leary, Tate,
Adams, Allen, & Hancock, 2007). It has also shown ecacy
in lowering shame and depression (Kelly, Zuro, & Shapira,
2009), increasing self-improvement motivation, and boost-
ing willingness to make amends and avoid repeating a
moral transgression (Breines & Chen, 2012). Creating
and reading aloud positive self-statements, instead of
neutral self-statements, has been shown to reduce self-
deprecatory thoughts and increase self-esteem in a group
of low self-esteem subjects (Lange, Richard, Gest, Vries, &
Lodder, 1998). It has also been considered as an impor-
tant aid for the treatment of emotional disorders (Lange,
Richard, Kiestra, & van Oostendorp, 1997). Evidence seems
to suggest that this intervention could be improved by the
use of a mirror.
The mirror as a psychotherapeutic tool
The capacity of the mirror to induce a state of self-focused
attention has made it the object of investigation in the
research eld on self-awareness and self-focusing (Silvia,
2002). According to objective self-awareness theory, when
individuals are in a state of self-awareness (for example,
when they are exposed to their mirror reection), they
tend to compare themselves to their standards (Duval
& Wicklund, 1972). Self-to-standard comparison often
brings unfavorable results, activating negative emotions
as a result.
However, results regarding the aversive nature of
self-focused attention induced by mirror exposure have
not always been consistent. In fact, research has shown
that exposure to a mirror can reduce self-critical eval-
uations. For example, Hofmann and Heinrichs (2002)
asked undergraduate college students to record three
self positive and three self negative attributes after sit-
ting in front of a mirror for 5min. Individuals with prior
mirror exposure showed a greater balance between pos-
itive and negative self-statements, and fewer self-critical
statements concerning non-socially relevant personality
characteristics, than participants without previous mir-
ror exposure. In a later study, Hofmann and Heinrichs
(2003) replicated these ndings with social anxiety dis-
The mirror has also been applied in the treatment of
dierent psychopathological conditions. Its use as an
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 527
Specically,we predicted that repeating self-compas-
sionate phrases in front of a mirror after a brief induction of
self-criticism would produce a higher increase in positive
aect (in particular, the ‘soothing’ positive aect linked
to increased self-reassurance and safeness) compared to
repeating the phrases without the mirror, or to just looking
at the mirror without repeating the phrases.
However, the repetition of the phrases at the mirror
was not expected to increase activated positive aect. In
fact, compassion-focused interventions are specically
designed to increase soothing positive aect (Gilbert etal.,
2008; Kelly etal., 2012).
Research has reported mixed ndings regarding the
impact of compassion-focused interventions on nega-
tive aect: some studies have documented decreased
negative aect in response to the intervention (Gilbert &
Procter, 2006; Ne & Germer, 2013), while other stud-
ies have reported no specic eects on negative aect
(Klimecki, Leiberg, Lamm, & Singer, 2013; Odou & Brinker,
2015). Given these mixed ndings, no specic predictions
were formulated as to the eect of the intervention on
Given that increased HRV is specically connected to
the emotional state of compassion and not to positive
aect in general (Stellar, Cohen, Oveis, & Keltner, 2015),
we also expected that HRV would increase in the ‘phrases
at the mirror’ condition more than in the other two condi-
tions, in line with the increase in soothing positive aect
expected in that condition.
It was also hypothesized that the effect of repeating
the phrases in front of a mirror would be partially medi-
ated by an increase in common humanity, a component
of self-compassion (Neff, 2003) which reflects how ‘not
so abnormal and shameful’ we apprise our defects and
suffering, and how able we are to remind ourselves that
thoughts and feelings of inadequacy are shared by most
people. Data have shown that increased self-awareness,
induced also by mirror exposure (Hofmann & Heinrichs,
2002, 2003), is positively linked to theory of mind, which
is the ability to understand that others, similar to us,
have complex mental states (beliefs, desires, emotions,
knowledge, etc.) and, consequently, share with us the
same potential for suffering (Keenan, Gallup, & Falk,
2003). Following this line of reasoning, we hypothe-
sized that the state of self-awareness generated by mir-
ror exposure might strengthen the de-shaming effect
of the self-compassion phrases, by fostering a sense of
‘not-aloneness’ in our shortcoming, and of belonging
to a shared human vulnerability to suffering and the
causes of it.
The mirror, helping subjects to have an ‘external view’
of themselves and their issues, was expected to improve
this dimension and, as a consequence, to increase the level
of compassionate feelings experienced toward their own
The sample was composed of 43 men and 47 women,
mean age 26.34years (SD=7.8) recruited from the gen-
eral population. Four subjects were not included in the
analyses due to unreliable physiological measures, leaving
a sample of 86 participants (40 men). Recruitment was con-
ducted through yers, websites, and social networks. All
subjects were Caucasian and native Italian speaking. Data
on income or socioeconomic status of participants were
not collected. Exclusionary criteria were major psychiatric
or cognitive problems, psychotic or organic illnesses, sub-
stance abuse, cardiovascular disease, use of drugs/medi-
cations that might aect cardiovascular function, obesity
(body mass index> 30kg/m2), menopause, use of oral
contraceptives during the previous 6months, and preg-
nancy or childbirth within the last 12months. The protocol
was approved by the local Ethics Committee.
Design and procedure
Participants were asked to refrain from (a) eating, (b) drink-
ing alcohol, tea or coee, and (c) strenuous exercise 2h
preceding the scheduled appointment. The experiment
was conducted as a randomized group comparison design.
In order to obscure the focus on self-compassion and
self-criticism and reduce the likelihood of biased ratings
on mood items, participants were told that the aim of the
study was to test for eects of dierent interventions on
dierent types of thoughts and feelings.
The experimental phase took place in a one-to-one ses-
sion in a small quiet oce. After being informed about
the procedure, participants provided informed consent,
were asked to sit in front a computer monitor, and were
hooked up with the electrocardiogram (ECG) electrodes.
The initial steps of the experimental procedure were the
same for all three conditions. Participants were rst asked
to relax for 5 min while leang through a magazine with
neutral content in order to acquire a baseline ECG record-
ing. They were then asked to rate their momentary aect
using visual analogue scales (VASs at Time 1 – Baseline; see
Section ‘Measures’ for more details). All participants were
then instructed by a 2min audio recording to generate
and write four compassionate phrases. The instructions
were as follows:
I am now going to ask you to imagine that one of your
dearest friends is experiencing an upsetting situation,
which involves some kind of rejection, disappointment
or failure, and that he/she is very self-critical about it.
528 N. PETROCCHI ET AL.
experimental manipulation was followed by a nal assess-
ment of momentary aect (using VASs) and common
humanity feelings (Time 3). At this point, participants in
all conditions were also asked to rate how closely they
were able to follow the manipulation instructions (from
0=completely unable to 4=completely able) and how
dicult it was for them to follow the manipulation instruc-
tions (from 0=very dicult to 4=very easy). Participants
in condition c) were also asked if, during the mirror expo-
sure, they repeated the phrases previously created (yes/no)
or if they engaged in some kind of conscious and active
compassionate self-talk (yes/no).
Finally, participants were debriefed and oered profes-
sional counseling in case of any emotional distress caused
by the experiment.
Dispositional questionnaires and questions regarding
habits (‘how often and for how long do you look at yourself
in the mirror in a typical day?’; see the Section ‘Measures’
for more details) were administered after the experimental
procedure (to obscure the goal of the experiment), using
QuestionPro survey website. A web link for the online sur-
vey was sent to participants via email after the completion
of the experimental procedure. See Figure 1 for a ow chart
of the procedure.
Socio-demographic and personal information
Participants were asked to complete a socio-demographic
form, which included items regarding gender, age, level
of education, height and weight for BMI calculation, and
smoking habits (‘are you a smoker?’ Yes/No).
The Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale
(CES-D; Radlo, 1977) was administered. The CES-D is a
20-item self-report scale that assesses the frequency of
occurrence of symptoms of depression during the past
week. In this study internal consistency was α=0.91.
The Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory – Trait
Form (STAI; Spielberger, Gorsuch, & Lushene, 1970) was
employed. STAI-Trait is a 20-item self-report measure of
anxiety proneness that requires participants to rate their
frequency of anxiety symptoms. In this study internal con-
sistency was α=0.93.
Trait self-criticism, self-attacking, and self-reassuring
The Forms of Self-criticizing/attacking and Self-reassuring
Scale (FSCRS; Gilbert, Clarke, Hempel, Miles, & Irons, 2004)
Please write four phrases thatyou would use to soothe
and encourage him/her, and that express compassion,
understanding, and unconditional acceptance for your
friend and for the part of the self that he/she dislikes.
Instructions for generating compassion-focused phrases
were based on descriptions of this method as detailed by
This was followed by the induction of self-critical nega-
tive emotions: participants were asked to think about and
write a detailed description (5 min) of a recent episode in
which they harshly criticized themselves, or felt ashamed
and disappointed by themselves. Then, the aect VASs
were administered again (Time 2). State level of common
humanity feelings regarding the content of their self-criti-
cism episode was also assessed at this point (see Measures
section for more details).
Subsequently, participants were randomly assigned
to 1 of 3 experimental conditions where they had to: (1)
repeat the four phrases to themselves while looking at a
mirror (n=30), (2) repeat the four phrases to themselves
without a mirror (n=28); or (3) look at themselves in a
mirror without repeating the phrases (n=28). Instructions
were delivered through a 3 min audio recording. The
Figure 1.Flow chart of the experimental procedure.
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 529
State common humanity
At Time 2 and Time 3, participants were asked to rate, on
a 7-point Likert scale, four items adapted from the com-
mon humanity subscale of the Self-compassion Scale
(Ne, 2003), to assess the current level of this dimension
regarding the content of the self-criticism episode. The
four items were: ‘In this moment, I see my failings as part of
the human condition’, ‘In this moment, I feel that there are
lots of other people in the world experiencing failures and
imperfections’, ‘In this moment, my aws and inadequacies
make me feel more separate and cut o from the rest of
the world’ and ‘In this moment, I feel alone in my failure
and feelings of inadequacy’. After reversing the scores of
the two negative items, the mean of the four items was
computed and employed in subsequent analyses. Internal
consistency for this parcel was α=0.79.
The electrocardiogram (ECG) was continuously monitored
(Monitoring, Adatec s.r.l., Italy) throughout the experiment
with a standard electrode conguration (right clavicle and
precordial site V6). Three disposable Ag- AgCl electrodes
were used. The ECG signal was digitized at 1000Hz and
inspected oine using Monitoring software (Adatec s.r.l.,
Italy). Successive R waves (identied by an automatic beat
detection algorithm) were visually inspected, and any
irregularities were edited. Heart rate and a time domain
measure of HRV (Root Mean Square Successive Dierence;
RMSSD) were then obtained for baseline, induction,
and each experimental condition using HRV Analysis
Software (Niskanen, Tarvainen, Ranta-Aho, & Karjalainen,
2004). According to the Task Force guidelines, the RMSSD
reects the integrity of vagus nerve-mediated autonomic
control of the heart (Task Force of the European Society
of Cardiology & the North American Society of Pacing &
The analyses were carried out using SPSS Version 21. Only
signicant (p<0.05) results are reported. To control for
the presence of preexisting baseline dierences between
the three experimental subgroups, a series of one-way
Analyses of Variance (ANOVAs) were computed on all the
dispositional (socio-demographic variables and trait ques-
tionnaires), state (NA, activated PA, soothing PA, and state
common humanity) and physiological measures (HR and
We tested for the eectiveness of the self-criticism
induction (manipulation check) by comparing all out-
come measures (NA, activated PA, soothing PA, HR and
HRV) at T1 and T2 using Bonferroni corrected paired
was employed. The scale consists of 22 items assessing the
way people ‘treat themselves’ when things go wrong. This
measure is composed by three dimensions: inadequate
self, which assesses feelings of inadequacy and a sense
of frustration towards the self; hated self, which assesses
a feeling of self-hate and desire to hurt the self; and reas-
sured self, which indicates the ability to be self-soothing
and reassuring when facing failures. In the present study
Cronbach’s α for the Hated-Self scale was 0.80, for the
Reassured-Self scale was 0.88, and for the Inadequate-Self
scale was 0.93.
Trait self-consciousness and social anxiety
The Self-Consciousness Scale Revised (Scheier & Carver,
1985) was employed to assess dispositional private and
public self-consciousness, and social anxiety. In the pres-
ent study Cronbach’s α for the Private self-consciousness
scale was 0.83, for the Public self-consciousness scale was
0.84, and for the Social anxiety scale was 0.86.
Other stable features
Questions regarding perceived pleasantness of the face (1
item, rated on a 7-point Likert scale), minutes spent in front
of the mirror every day (1 item, rated on a 7-point Likert
scale), and perceived pleasantness of the voice (1 item, rated
on a 7-point Likert scale) were also included.
Visual analogue scales – VASs
At Time 1 (baseline), Time 2 (after the self-criticism induc-
tion), and Time 3 (after the experimental manipulation),
participants were asked to rate their current levels of neg-
ative and positive aect on several visual analogue 100-
point scales (VAS). The VAS is a measure of aect intensity
that is valid for registering short-term changes in aect
(Albersnagel, 1988). Negative aect (NA) was assessed
by four emotions related to the self-criticism induction
(ashamed, disgusted with themselves, guilty, angry at
The activated and the soothing positive aect were
assessed by two subscales of the Activation and Safe/
Content Aect Scale (Gilbert et al., 2008). Four items
with the highest factorial loading of the activated posi-
tive aect (lively, energetic, excited, enthusiastic) and the
soothing positive aect (safe, secure, content, warm) were
Given their high internal consistency (Cronbach’s α for
negative aect=0.82; activated positive aect: α=0.76;
soothing positive aect: α = 0.73), responses to items
belonging to the same aect system were aggregated
to compute the mean. These three items’ parcels will be
referred to as ‘NA’, ‘activated PA’, and ‘soothing PA’.
530 N. PETROCCHI ET AL.
recommended cut-o points (Kline, 1998), consistent with
the assumption of approximate normal distributions.
Initial data screening revealed no signicant base-
line dierences at trait and state measures at Time 1 (all
ps>0.05). Chi-square tests showed no dierences between
the three groups for gender (p=0.07) and smoking habits
(p=0.06). However, the three groups showed a dierence in
age, F(2,83) = 3.86, p<0.05: participants in the ‘mirror-only’
group were signicantly younger than those in the ‘phrases
at the mirror’ group (see Table 1 for means, standard devi-
ations and statistics). Moreover, the three groups diered
on level of education, F(2,83) = 4.44, p<0.05: the ‘phrases
only’ participants had a signicantly higher level of educa-
tion than those in the ‘phrases at the mirror’ group. Thus,
age and level of education were included as covariates in
all following analyses. The assumption of homogeneity of
variances and homogeneity of regression slopes was met
for all the dependent variables.
Eect of self-criticism induction
Bonferroni corrected paired t-tests indicated that NA sig-
nicantly increased from Time 1 (before the self-criticism
induction) to Time 2 (after the self-criticism induction) (all
ps<0.001). The activated PA, and the soothing PA, signi-
cantly decreased from T1 to T2 (all p<0.001). Furthermore,
HR increased and HRV decreased from T1 to T2. The induc-
tion can therefore be considered eective in increasing
negative aect connected to self-criticism, and in reducing
positive aect, with associated increase in HR and decrease
in HRV (see Table 2).
Eect of experimental manipulation
GLM results showed a main eect of Time on all dependent
variables, except for HR and HRV. Negative aect signi-
cantly decreased from T2 to T3 (all ps<0.01; see Table 2 for
means, standard deviations, and statistics). The activated
PA and the soothing PA, signicantly increased from T2 to
T3 (all ps<0.05).
A signicant Time × Group interaction emerged for
the soothing PA (see Figure 2) and for HRV, (see Figure 3).
To test for the eects of our experimental manipula-
tion, a series of 3 × 3 General Linear Models (GLMs) with
Group (phrases at the mirror vs phrases without the mirror
vs mirror without phrases) as a between subject variable,
Time (Time 1, Time 2, Time 3) as a within subject variable,
and Gender as covariate were conducted on NA, activated
PA, soothing PA, HR and HRV. Partial eta-squared (η
calculated to quantify the eect sizes.
Then, bootstrapping tests of mediation were performed
using the Preacher and Hayes (2008) PROCESS macro with
5000 bootstrap samples. This approach provides unstand-
ardized betas for the indirect eect estimates, and the
corresponding 95% bias-corrected and accelerated con-
dence intervals. If the values between the upper and
lower condence limits do not include zero, this indicates
a statistically signicant mediation eect. In this study, the
independent variable was Group, the dependent variables
were the change score from Time 2 to Time 3 of outcome
variables that showed a signicant Group × Time inter-
action in the previous GLMs, and the mediator was the
change score in state common humanity from Time 2 to
To control for dierences between how closely partic-
ipants followed the instructions and how dicult it was
for them, one-way ANOVAs with Bonferroni post hoc cor-
rection were computed on these two items between the
three experimental subgroups (see Section ‘Design and
Procedure’ for more details).
Preliminary analyses and group dierences at
Twelve univariate outliers were found. However, consid-
ering the little dierence existing between mean and 5%
trimmed mean, all outliers were considered as not distort-
ing data and, therefore, included in the main analyses. No
multivariate outliers were found using the Mahalanobis
statistic. Based on examination of the Kolmogorov–
Smirnov and Shapiro–Wilk statistic, several variables were
not normally distributed. However, Skewness’ and Kurtosis’
values were not severely biased, as these were below the
Table 1.Mean scores, standard deviations and statistics for age, level of education and body mass index. Only signiﬁcant statistics are
Note: Level of education scores: 0 = Junior high school; 1 = Senior high school; 2 = Bachelor’s degree; 3 = Master’s degree, 4 = Doctoral degree or a second-level
Master’s degree, ns = non signiﬁcant.
Phrases at the mirror Group M (SD) Phrases only Group M (SD) Mirror only Group M (SD) Statistics
Age 29.10a26.10 23.5ba > b
(4.03) (3.3) (3.2) p < 0.01
Level of education 2.5a3.1b2.7 b > a
(0.63) (0.56) (0.62) p < 0.05
BMI (kg/m2) 21.82 21.50 22.01 ns
(1.1) (1.2) (1.1)
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 531
Gender was not a signicant covariate in both models. Post
hoc Bonferroni corrected analyses showed no dierences
between the 3 groups at Time 1 and the Time 2. However,
at Time three there were statistically signicant dier-
ences in the soothing PA, F(2, 81) = 5.8, p<0.01, partial
η2=0.12 and HRV, F(2, 81) = 4.7, p=0.012, partial η2=0.97.
Bonferroni corrected pairwise comparisons showed that
the ‘phrases at the mirror’ group scored signicantly higher
than the other two groups on both the soothing PA and
HRV (see Table 2 for means, standard deviations, and sta-
tistics). No other signicant dierences emerged.
Mediating eect of common humanity
Two distinct bootstrapping tests of mediation were
performed, with Group as the independent variable,
change score in common humanity from Time 2 to Time
3 as a mediator, and the soothing PA and HRV change
scores from Time 2 to Time 3 as the dependent variables,
Overall, the model with change score in soothing PA
as the dependent variable accounted for 19.4% of its
variance. Importantly, the indirect eect of group on the
dependent variable (via score increase in common human-
ity) was signicant (B=−1.47; CI [−3.89, −0.09]), suggesting
that increases in common humanity mediated the eect
of Group on the soothing PA increases. In addition, results
indicated that the direct eect of Group on the dependent
variable remained signicant (B=−5.52, CI [−9.5, −1.53])
when the mediator was included in the model, thus sug-
gesting a partial mediation (see Figure 4 for unstandard-
The model with HRV change score as the dependent
variable accounted for 12.8% of its variance. However, the
indirect eect of Group on the dependent variable (via
score increase in common humanity) was not signicant
(B=−1.08; CI [−3.63, 0.07]), suggesting that score increase
Figure 2. Time × Group interaction for the ‘soothing positive
Table 2.Mean scores, standard deviations, and statistics of aﬀect systems (VASs), common humanity, HR, and HRV (RMSSD) in the three groups before the emotion induction (T1), after the
self-criticism induction (T2), and after the intervention (T3).
Note: M & P = mirror and phrases; HR = heart rate; RMSSD = root mean square of the successive diﬀerences. Only signiﬁcant statistics are reported. ns = non signiﬁcant.
T1 T2 T3 Statistics
M & P M (SD) Phrases M (SD) Mirror M (SD) M & P M (SD) Phrases M (SD) Mirror M (SD) M & P M (SD) Phrases M (SD)
Main eect of
Time × group
Negative aﬀect 19.7 (19.4) 17.9 (18.9) 17.7 (14.4) 43.5 (17.7) 38.9 (22.2) 40.4 (18.5) 23.7 (26.3) 27.3 (25.7) 26.5 (21.1) F(4,162) = 8.04, p
< 0.01, partial η2
Activated PA 50.9 (16.9) 49.8 (16.4) 52.4 (19.2) 35.2 (18.8) 40.6 (18.5) 42.1 (15.8) 49.3 (19.1) 45.9 (18.6) 47.4 (22.2) F(4,162) = 4.65, p
< 0.05, partial η2
Soothing PA 50.1 (18.8) 46.6 (18.1) 47.9 (16.6) 31.6 (11.1) 32.8 (16.8) 34.3 (15.3) 56.5 (17.1) 41.5 (18.6) 44.5 (17.5) F(4,162) = 11.36, p
< 0.01, partial η2
F(4,162) = 6.16,
p < 0.01,
partial η2 =
/ 4.75 (0.89) 4.88 (1.44) 4.97 (1.60) 5.19 (1.09) 5.06 (1.19) 4.8 (1.23) ns F(2,83) = 3.58, p
< 0.05, partial
η2 = 0.08
HR (bpm) 82.4 (7.7) 82.5 (10.6) 81.1 (11.1) 84.6 (12.4) 83.7 (10.4) 82.5 (11.4) 84.2 (7.3) 81.5 (9.6) 81.3 (9.9) ns ns
RMSSD (ms2) 66.1 (21.1) 71.4 (17.1) 69.1 (22.9) 58.1 (17.9) 58.9 (15.4) 59.07 (15.5) 81.4 (27.6) 68.6 (15.2) 67.6 (16.8) ns F(4,162) = 7.24,
p < 0.01,
partial η2 =
532 N. PETROCCHI ET AL.
& Chen, 2009). In fact, the warm and positive feelings of
safeness and contentment stemming from compassion-
ate self-relating have been shown to protect against the
depressogenic eects of shame and self-criticism (Gilbert
The main purpose of this study was to investigate
whether the ecacy of a 5-min compassionate self-talk
manipulation in augmenting positive emotions could be
enhanced by performing it in front of a mirror and direct-
ing the phrases toward participants’ own reection. As
expected, results showed that repeating the phrases in
front of the mirror enhanced the soothing positive aect
more than repeating the phrases out loud, without the
mirror, or just looking at their reection in the mirror
without repeating the phrases. The soothing aect sys-
tem is triggered by signals of social connectedness and
safeness (Carter, 1998; Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005;
Wang, 2005). Increases in this particular type of positive
aect, which is linked to the caring motivational system,
and to aliative warm relationships, are the target of all
compassion-focused interventions. Research has shown
that from birth, the brain has specialized systems that
are highly responsive to social stimuli (warm voice tones,
facial expressions, touching, and holding; Schore, 1994;
Trevarthen & Aitken, 2001), and that these social signals
are major regulators of arousal, emotions, and physiolog-
ical processes (Cacioppo, Berston, Sheridan, & McClintock,
2000). Thus, the mirror seems to be an eective addition to
the self-talk exercise because it intensies exactly the type
of positive emotions that are considered to have a major
protective eect against self-criticism and shame-based
diculties. Physiological data supported this result: HRV,
an index of adaptive emotion regulation, high levels of
‘safety-based’ positive emotions (Thayer, Åhs, Fredrikson,
Sollers, & Wager, 2012), and a physiological marker of com-
passion (Stellar etal., 2015), increased when the phrases
were repeated in front of the mirror more than in the other
One possible explanation for this eect is that the mir-
ror increases the quantity of positive self-relating social
signals that we can process (not only the voice but also
the reection of our facial expressions and the gaze), thus
intensifying the emotional response that these signals
tend to elicit (feeling of safeness and lovability that are
more directly conveyed by non verbal communication).
Moreover, watching our own face in the mirror strongly
activates the mirror neuron system (Platek etal., 2006;
Uddin, Kaplan, Molnar-Szakacs, Zaidel, & Iacoboni, 2005),
which, through the mechanism of ‘embodied simulation’
(Gallese, 2013), facilitates a direct, pre-reexive form of
action understanding not exclusively dependent upon
mentalistic/linguistic abilities (Gallese, 2003). We can spec-
ulate that the activation of this system may have induced
in common humanity did not mediate the eect of Group
on HRV increase.
There were no dierences among the three groups on how
closely participants were able to follow instructions of the
assigned experimental condition, F(2, 83) = 1.8, p=0.7.
However, for participants in the phrases only Group it was
more dicult to follow the instructions, F(2, 83) = 3.75,
p<0.05, partial η2=0.11, M=2.9, SD=0.6 than for partic-
ipants in the mirror only Group (M=2.1, SD=0.8). None
of the participants in the mirror only Group repeated the
phrases previously created during the mirror exposure or
consciously engaged in an active compassionate self-talk.
The ability to be reassuring, encouraging and compas-
sionate towards ourselves when things go wrong in life is
related to increased resilience and, in general, better psy-
chological health (Neely, Schallert, Mohammed, Roberts,
Figure 3.Time × Group interaction for HRV (RMSSD; ms2).
Figure 4.Path diagram for the mediation model. Note: **p<0.01;
***p < 0.001. cs = change score (from Time 2 to Time 3). All
coeﬃcients are unstandardized.
THE JOURNAL OF POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY 533
Repeating the phrases at the mirror did not lessen neg-
ative emotions more than the other two conditions. These
ndings conrmed that even if positive and negative aect
are evidently two related constructs, at the same time they
are separate dimensions, and not two opposite points on
the same continuum (Baumeister & Bushman, 2010). Our
results are in line with previous research showing that
compassion-focused interventions do not specically
impact negative aect, or, at least, no more than other
interventions (Klimecki etal., 2013; Odou & Brinker, 2015).
This may be due to the nature of compassion interven-
tions. Dierently from positive reappraisal and cognitive
restructuring, which are mostly aimed to ‘restructure’ and
change the very content of the self-critical process (e.g. ‘I’m
not so bad; I don’t have enough evidence supporting this
negative assumption about myself’), thus improving neg-
ative aect, compassion-focused coping may provide indi-
viduals with an eective way to accept negative emotions,
which might not be directly impacted by the intervention.
The mirror seems to potentiate the compassionate
self-talk manipulation through focusing on kindness and
connectedness in the face of an emotionally painful expe-
rience, thus increasing the positive emotions of the sooth-
ing system and HRV.
Two major limitations must be considered when
interpreting the results of this study. Firstly, we did not
conduct an extensive qualitative content analysis of
the type of phrases that participants produced in the
first part of the experiment. Differences in content and
‘intensity’ of the phrases among the groups may have
been responsible for the pattern of results we observed.
However, an informal content analysis conducted sepa-
rately by the three authors seemed to suggest a general
homogeneity in terms of content and emotional inten-
sity of the phrases among the three groups. Random
examples of phrases have been reported in Appendix 1.
General themes of unconditional acceptance, under-
standing and empathy towards the suffering, willing-
ness to support and help, common humanity, and warm
encouragement seem to indistinctively recur among all
the three groups.
The second limitation is that even if we asked partici-
pants to rate how closely they followed the instructions
and how dicult it was for them to follow the instructions,
we did not directly control for participants’ compliance to
the experimental task (through audio or video recordings).
Limitations notwithstanding, results suggest that the
mirror is an eective tool for improving the eectiveness
of a compassion-focused exercise, considering that it
could be easily implemented in clinical practice. Further
research is needed to determine moderators (e.g., dier-
ent fears of compassion; Gilbert, McEwan, Matos, & Rivis,
2011) and other possible mediators of this eect, such as,
participants’ emotional emphasizing of their own distress,
facilitating the emergence of self-compassion, as also sug-
gested by Vinai etal. (2015). This is indirectly supported
by recent research showing that exposure to our face
facilitates identication of emotional facial expressions
(Li & Tottenham, 2011, 2013), which is strongly related to
empathetic processes (Besel & Yuille, 2010).
Another way to explain the amplifying eect of the mir-
ror manipulation on soothing positive aect and HRV is
linked to the ‘objectifying properties’ of the mirror. When
we look at our own mirror reection, we may experience
ourselves from an external point of view, which may help
us be more objective and less biased by our internal rep-
resentations of ourselves (Silvia & O’Brien, 2004). In fact,
research employing immersive virtual reality has shown
that identication with a virtual body as a way to experi-
ence self-compassion from an embodied rst-person per-
spective increased self-compassion and feelings of being
safe in a group of highly self-critical females (Falconer etal.,
Interestingly, the addition of the mirror component
did not impact females dierently than males. Research
on self-objectication suggests that exposure to mirrors
can have negative aective and cognitive consequences
for females in particular, including increasing body shame
(Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, & Twenge, 1998).
However, it is possible that asking participants to generate
compassionate phrases in the rst part of the experiment,
thus activating a compassionate mind-set, has dampened
the shame reaction often linked to mirror exposure, espe-
cially for women; though, further research is needed to
explore this issue more fully.
Another possible explanation for the eect of the mir-
ror addition is that when we look at ourselves from an
external point of view, we can appraise our qualities like
we appraise other people’s features, and apply to our-
selves the same standards that we use to evaluate others,
which are usually milder (Leahy, 2003). This might help
us remind that we have boundaries and aws like every
other human being, and that suering, personal failures,
inadequacies are part of the shared human experience.
This insight, which has been dened ‘common human-
ity’ by Ne (2003), is one of the major components of
self-compassion, because it lessens the degree of blame
and harsh judgment we may have placed on ourselves for
our failings, softening feelings of abnormality and isola-
tion. In fact, our data showed that the enhancement in the
soothing aect system produced by repeating the phrases
at the mirror was partially mediated by an increase in com-
mon humanity. However, common humanity did not play
the same mediating role in HRV increases, suggesting that
other possible mediating factors must be hypothesized
and further investigated.
534 N. PETROCCHI ET AL.
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Appendix 1.Random selection of compassionate phrases from the three groups.
Phrases at the mirror group Phrases only group Mirror only group
I’ll always be there for you, whatever you
What counts for me, it’s not what you do but
what you are
Making mistakes is human; it’s OK even if you fail
It’s not the end of the world! We will ﬁnd a
I’m sorry that you are sad, but you can count on
me; everything will be all right
Life is sour sometimes, but we are all together in this, you
will never be alone
We can all do mistakes Over the years, I’ve seen all your changes and
I’ve learned how to love each and every part
of you. I love you
Take your time, take a bath, cuddle yourself.
I will be here even when all things will start
falling apart; you are my friend, my sister, I
will never leave you alone.
I know what you are feeling, but you can always
count on me
A day will come when you will think back to this moment
and you will smile at it
I know that you are struggling now, but
please don’t forget that there are people
loving you, and waiting for you to feel
After all this, you will be stronger that before I know how diﬃcult this moment is for you: loss, betrayals
etc. But I will be by your side, whatever happens.
I’m sorry that you are feeling sad, I’ll be by
Life is like that: there will always be diﬃculties
and sad moments. But we can decide to be
strong enough to face them.
I love you for what you are, exactly as you are, not for what
Don’t let anyone judge you, you are the only
person that can say what’s right or wrong
Don’t take your self-critical voice so seriously;
you are much wiser and bigger than that silly
The parts of yourself that you don’t like, are parts of you that
need your attention and love
You’ve been strong in the past, and you will
be able to ﬁnd your strength now too.
I’m here and I will be here forever; I’ll always try
to help you in any way possible
Think about all the positive things that you did and do.
Don’t be too hard and critical on yourself,
everyone makes mistakes.
What counts is that you had the strength to
share these diﬃcult feelings with someone
Don’t worry we will ﬁx this together
Don’t worry, the sun will come back, eventu-
ally; and I’ll be here with you till it comes.
What can I do for you? It’s better if we are in
I understand you completely, how can I help you?
When you are sad, you can count on me I’m your friend and I love you; I accept you
exactly as you are
Everyone makes mistakes, but we can always learn from
them. Don’t worry, we will ﬁnd a solution together.