Self-compassion, Interpersonal Conflict Resolutions,
Lisa M. Yarnell1and Kristin D. Neff
1Psychology Department, University of Southern California2Educational Psychology Department, The University of Texas at Austin
This study examined the link between self-compassion and the balance of the needs of self andother in conflict situations. College undergraduates (N ¼ 506) were asked to provide anexample of a time in which their needs conflicted with those of their mother, father, best friendand romantic partner. Participants were asked how they resolved the conflict (subordinating,self-prioritizing, or compromising). They also reported whether their resolution choice feltauthentic, the degree of emotional turmoil experienced when resolving the conflict, and theirsense of well-being in each relational context. Across contexts, higher levels of self-compassionwere related to greater likelihood to compromise and lesser likelihood to self-subordinateneeds, as well as greater authenticity, lower levels of emotional turmoil, and higher levels ofrelational well-being. With fathers and romantic partners, the link between self-compassionand well-being was mediated by greater likelihood to make compromise decisions.
Keywords: Self-compassion; Interpersonal relationships; Conflict; Autonomy; Connectedness;Compromise; Authenticity; Well-being.
Psychologists have recently become interested in self-compassion as a healthy way ofrelating to oneself (Neff, 2009). Traditionally, compassion has been understood interms of concern for the suffering of others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas,2010). With self-compassion, however, one is emotionally supportive toward boththe self and others when hardship or human imperfection is confronted. While mostpeople report being kinder to others than themselves, self-compassionate individualsreport being equally kind to themselves and others (Neff, 2003a). When viewedthrough the lens of self-compassion, both the self and others are equally worthy ofconsideration and care. A growing body of research suggests that self-compassion isassociated with personal well-being (Neff, 2009), but relatively few studies haveexamined the association of self-compassion with healthy interpersonal behavior.
Neff (2003b) defined self-compassion as being comprised of three maincomponents: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindnessrefers to the tendency to be nurturing and understanding toward oneself ratherthan harshly judgmental. The sense of common humanity involves recognizing thatall people have problems, make mistakes, and feel inadequate in some way.Mindfulness, the third component of self-compassion, involves being aware ofpresent-moment experience in a clear and balanced way so that one neither ignores
Received 16 May 2011; accepted 5 December 2011; first published online 4 April 2012.
Correspondence should be addressed to: Lisa M. Yarnell, University of Southern California,
Department of Psychology, SGM 826B, Mailroom 501, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1061, USA.
Self and Identity, 12: 146–159, 2013
ISSN: 1529-8868 print/1529-8876 online
� 2013 Taylor & Francis
nor ruminates on disliked aspects of oneself or one’s life (Brown & Ryan, 2003).These three components overlap and interact, resulting in a single overarching factorof self-compassion.
Research suggests that self-compassion is a robust predictor of psychologicalhealth. Higher levels of self-compassion have been associated with lower levels ofdepression, anxiety, maladaptive perfectionism, thought suppression, fear of failure,and egocentrism (Neff, 2003a; Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2005; Neff, Kirkpatrick, &Rude, 2007; Neff & McGehee, 2010). Self-compassion has also been linked topositive states such greater life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, personalinitiative, perceived competence, happiness, secure attachment and social connect-edness (Neff, 2003a; Neff, Pisitsungkagarn, & Hseih, 2008; Neff, Rude, &Kirkpatrick, 2007). Importantly, self-compassion is not associated with self-enhancement bias (Neff, 2003a; Neff & Vonk, 2009), but is associated with takinggreater responsibility for past mistakes (Leary, Tate, Adams, Allen, & Hancock,2007). This suggests that self-compassion is not just a way of distorting past orpresent actions in order to see oneself positively. Self-compassion has been shown tohave discriminant validity with regard to other measures of psychologicaladjustment such as self-esteem (Neff, 2003a), attachment security (Neff & McGehee,2010), negative affect (Neff, Kirkpatrick et al., 2007) and the ‘‘Big Five’’ personalitytraits of agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience, andneuroticism (Neff, Rude et al., 2007).
A smaller body of research suggests that self-compassion may also be linked tointerpersonal well-being. One recent study of adult heterosexual couples (Neff &Beretvas, in press) found that self-compassionate individuals were described by theirpartners as being more emotionally connected, accepting and autonomy-supportingwhile being less detached, controlling, and aggressive. Crocker and Canevello (2008)found that individuals who scored high in self-compassion tended to have morecompassionate goals in close relationships (as assessed by self-reports and partnerreports), meaning that they tended to provide social support and encourageinterpersonal trust with partners. Self-compassion may also play an important rolein the ability to effectively balance the needs of self and other in relationships.
Balancing the needs of self and others in a way that integrates concerns withautonomy and connectedness is often viewed as central to healthy psychologicaldevelopment (Bowlby, 1988), and to healthy interpersonal relationships (Grotevant& Cooper, 1986). From the perspective of self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan,2000), the balanced integration of autonomy and connectedness is crucial forpositive relationship functioning in romantic relationships and the development ofintimacy and mutual support (see La Guaradia & Patrick, 2008, for a review). Thetheory posits that there are three basic psychological needs that underlie growth anddevelopment: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2000).Autonomy refers to volition and the active endorsement of one’s behavior.Conversely, a lack of autonomy involves feeling controlled in one’s behavior sothat personal needs are subordinated to external demands. Competence refers to thepropensity to experience challenge and mastery in one’s activity (note thatcompetence will not be a focus in the current study). Finally, relatedness, or the‘‘need to belong,’’ refers to the tendency to form strong and stable interpersonalbonds. Individuals who have their needs for autonomy, competence and relatednessmet experience more intimacy in relationships, increased willingness to express theirdesires and the relative authenticity of these expressions, as well as greater overallwell-being (La Guardia, 2007).
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A central manifestation of concerns with autonomy and connectedness withinrelationships may be observed in how conflicts between the needs and desires of eachpartner are resolved (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978; Miller, 1986; Spitzberg, Canary, &Cupach, 1994). An emphasis on mutuality in relationships involves the tendency tocompromise in conflict situations, because both the self’s needs and the other’s needsare validated and taken into account. Compromise solutions have been found to bethe most constructive in interpersonal conflicts, being associated with increasedcommunication, closeness, and relationship satisfaction than solutions that prioritizeor subordinate personal needs and desires (Gottman, 1994; Stein & Albro, 2001;Zacchilli, Hendrick, & Hendrick, 2009). Over-emphasizing autonomy, on the otherhand, often leads to conflict resolutions that prioritize the self’s needs; and over-emphasizing connectedness involves placing priority on meeting the other’s needs, sothat personal desires are subordinated.
The choices people make in conflict situations stem partly from external factorssuch as power inequality (Neff & Harter, 2002b) or the degree of perceived supportreceived from relationship partners (Neff & Harter, 2002a). However, conflictresolutions might also be influenced by internal psychological factors such as thelevel of compassion people feel toward themselves. Self-compassion acknowledgesthat personal needs are valid and worthy of response just as others’ needs are validand worthy. It allows people to remain interconnected and avoid self-centerednesswithout negating the self (Neff & Vonk, 2009). Because self-compassion involvestaking the perspective of a compassionate other towards the self, it also tends toencourage interpersonal perspective-taking (Davidson, 2007; Neff & Pommier, inpress). Finally, self-compassionate individuals are more likely to have fulfilled needsfor autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Neff, 2003a), suggesting that they mayalso be more likely to have positive relationship interactions.
For these reasons, we hypothesized that people who are higher in self-compassionwould be more likely to compromise than to subordinate their personal needs whenconflicts occurred in their relationships. The theoretical association between self-compassion and the prioritization of personal needs was less clear, since neitherthose high nor low in self-compassion should be expected to put their own needs firstin relationships. Thus, we made no predictions concerning the link between self-compassion and self-prioritization. However, we did expect that self-compassionateindividuals would more often feel that their resolution was authentic, withauthenticity being defined as the subjective perception that external actions matchinner thoughts, emotions and values (Neff & Harter, 2002b). We also predicted thatthey would feel less inner turmoil when resolving conflicts, and that they wouldreport experiencing greater psychological well-being in their relationships. This isbecause self-compassionate individuals have been found to have more authentic andintrinsic motivation (Neff, 2003a; Neff et al., 2005), greater emotional resilience inchallenging situations (Allen & Leary, 2010), and relationship satisfaction withromantic partners (Neff & Beretvas, in press). Moreover, we expected that thegreater well-being experienced by self-compassionate individuals in their relation-ships would be partially mediated by their tendency to make compromiseresolutions. Dealing with conflicts in a manner that meets both the self’s and theother’s needs is likely to create harmony within a relationship, and should thereforebe related to feelings of relational well-being.
The current study was designed to investigate these hypotheses, examining thelink between self-compassion and the resolution of conflicts across a variety ofrelational contexts: with mothers, fathers, best friends, and romantic partners.
148 L. M. Yarnell & K. D. Neff
Participants were recruited from a subject pool of college students attending apublic, southwestern US university who were offered class credit in exchange forparticipation. The sample consisted of 267 females and 239 males ranging from 17 to24 years in age (M ¼ 20.79, SD ¼ 1.24). The sample was 54% European American,31% Asian/Asian American, 9% Latino/Hispanic, 4% Multiethnic, 2% AfricanAmerican, and 0.2% Native American.
Conflict resolution behavior. Participants were asked to provide a writtenexample of a real-life situation in which their needs or desires conflicted with thoseof their mother, father, best friend, and romantic partner (Neff & Harter, 2002a). (Inthe latter two contexts, participants were asked to focus on their current friendshipand romantic relationship, or on a past friendship/relationship if they weren’tcurrently involved in one.) Conflict resolution was assessed in these four separaterelational domains within subjects because interpersonal behavior often variesbetween relationship contexts (Neff & Harter, 2003). Participants were asked toreport how they resolved the conflict given the following three choices, with wordingdrawn from past research (Neff & Harter, 2002a): self-subordination, ‘‘You havegiven up your personal need or desire in order to meet the need or desire of yourmother/father/best friend/partner’’; compromise, ‘‘You have tried to come up with acompromise solution, even if it meant that neither you nor your mother/father/bestfriend/partner got exactly what you wanted’’; or self-prioritization, ‘‘You have notgiven up your personal need or desire, and explained to your mother/father/bestfriend/partner why the matter was so important to you.’’
Authenticity. In line with past research examining the authenticity of conflictresolutions (Neff & Harter, 2002a, 2002b), participants were asked whether theirresolution to the conflict felt authentic or inauthentic with the dichotomousquestion: ‘‘When you resolved conflicts this way, did you feel like you were beingyour true self, the real you, or did it feel false, that you were acting that way, but itwas not the real you?’’ Respondents chose one of the two options.
Emotional turmoil. The degree of inner conflict and turmoil felt while resolvingthe conflict was measured with three items, e.g., ‘‘I felt conflicted inside,’’ whensolving the conflict in this way. Response options were given on a scale of 1 (Not atall) to 5 (Very much). Reliabilities ranged between a ¼ .90 and .94 across relationshipcontexts.
Relational well-being. Well-being was assessed within each relational contextwith three items measuring relational self-esteem and three items measuringrelational depression. The scales used were adapted from instruments used inprevious research by Harter and colleagues (Harter, Marold, & Whitesell, 1992;Harter, Waters, Whitesell, & Kastelic, 1998). Relational rather than generalmeasures of self-esteem and depression were used because emotional well-beinghas been found to vary between relational contexts (Harter, Waters, & Whitesell,
Self-compassion and Conflict Resolution 149
1998). Each item was scored on a scale from 1 to 4. A sample relational self-esteemitem measured the degree to which participants ‘‘like the kind of person they are’’when with their mother/father/friend/romantic partner. A sample relationaldepression item measured the degree to which they ‘‘feel down in their relationship.’’Because the self-esteem and depression scales were highly intercorrelated within eachcontext (r ¼ .77 for mother, r ¼ .84 for father, r ¼ .62 for best friend, and r ¼ .82 forpartner, all ps5 .001), items for these constructs were combined into a singlemeasure of relational well-being (with depression scores reverse coded). Reliabilitiesfor the combines scale were a ¼ .91 for mother, a ¼ .94 for father, a ¼ .86 for bestfriend, and a ¼ .94 for partner.
Self-compassion. Participants were given the 26-item Self-Compassion Scale(SCS; Neff, 2003a), which assesses six different aspects of self-compassion (withnegative aspects reverse coded): Self-kindness (e.g., ‘‘I try to be understanding andpatient toward aspects of my personality I don’t like’’); Self-judgment (e.g., ‘‘I’mdisapproving and judgmental about my own flaws and inadequacies’’); Commonhumanity (e.g., ‘‘I try to see my failings as part of the human condition’’); Isolation(e.g., ‘‘When I think about my inadequacies it tends to make me feel more separateand cut off from the rest of the world’’); Mindfulness (e.g., ‘‘When something painfulhappens I try to take a balanced view of the situation’’); and Over-identification (e.g.,‘‘When I’m feeling down I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong’’).Responses are given on a 5-point scale from ‘‘Almost never’’ to ‘‘Almost always.’’ Asmentioned, research indicates the SCS has an appropriate factor structure, with asingle overarching factor of ‘‘self-compassion’’ explaining the intercorrelationsbetween subscales, and demonstrates predictive, convergent, and discriminantvalidity (Neff, 2003a). Internal consistency for the SCS in the current study wasa ¼ .92.
On the whole, the sample reported moderate levels of self-compassion, M ¼ 3.01,SD ¼ 0.59. Men reported slightly higher levels of self-compassion than women(M ¼ 3.10, SD ¼ 0.58 for men; M ¼ 2.94, SD ¼ 0.58 for women). Although thisdifference was statistically significant, t(503) ¼ 3.08, p5 .01, it was small in effectsize, d ¼ 0.27 (Cohen, 1977, 1988).
Descriptive analyses for resolution style, authenticity, emotional turmoil, andpsychological well-being are presented in Table 1. Consistent with previous findings(e.g., Neff & Harter, 2003), participants were most likely to choose compromise inevery relational context, and this pattern was especially strong with best friends.
Table 1 also displays descriptive statistics by gender. Men and women did notdiffer in their resolution style with mothers, w2(2, N ¼ 494) ¼ 1.39, p ¼ .50; fathers,w2 (2, N ¼ 473) ¼ 1.43, p ¼ .49; or best friends, w2 (2, N ¼ 429) ¼ 0.86, p ¼ .65. Therewas a marginally significant sex difference in resolution style reported with romanticpartners, however, w2 (2, N ¼ 401) ¼ 4.80, p ¼ .09, with males showing a slightlygreater tendency to self-subordinate with romantic partners than females (31.9% ofresolutions among males, compared to 22.8% of resolutions among females). Malesand females did not differ significantly in terms of relational well-being in anycontext, though females reported significantly greater emotional turmoil when
150 L. M. Yarnell & K. D. Neff
resolving conflicts with fathers (p5 . 001), best friends (p5 .05), and romanticpartners (p5 .01). They also reported feeling significantly less authentic than menwhen resolving conflicts with mothers (p5 .05) and fathers (p5 .001), andmarginally less authentic with friends (p ¼ .09). Given these gender differences, wetested our hypotheses on the link between self-compassion and relationship variablesseparately by gender as well as for the sample as a whole.
Testing of Main Hypotheses
Conflict resolution styles. Because self-compassionate people should acknowl-edge that the needs of both self and others are valid and worthy, we hypothesizedthat higher self-compassion scores would be associated with the tendency tocompromise rather than subordinate personal needs in conflict situations. We testedthis hypothesis by running a multinomial logistic regression in each of the fourrelational contexts, with self-compassion predicting resolution style and compromise
TABLE 1 Percentage of Resolution Styles in each Relational Context, and Means(Standard Deviations) for the Authenticity of Resolutions, Emotional Turmoil, andPsychological Well-being
Mother Father Best friend Romanticpartner
Total sample (N ¼ 506)Resolution style
Self-subordinate (%) 18 31 16 26Compromise (%) 52 42 67 48Self-prioritize (%) 29 26 16 24
Authentic (%) 84 77 90 79Emotional turmoil 2.27 (1.09) 2.30 (1.18) 1.84 (0.98) 2.44 (1.26)Relational well-being 3.37 (0.66) 3.33 (0.73) 3.68 (0.47) 3.37 (0.74)
Males (N ¼ 239)Resolution style
Self-subordinate (%) 19 29 17 32Compromise (%) 55 45 69 47Self-prioritize (%) 27 26 14 21
Authentic (%) 88 84 93 80Emotional turmoil 2.18 (1.01) 2.10 (1.10) 1.71 (0.88) 2.26 (1.18)Relational well-being 3.33 (0.64) 3.32 (0.71) 3.68 (0.44) 3.39 (0.70)
Females (N ¼ 267)Resolution style
Self-subordinate (%) 18 33 16 23Compromise (%) 50 40 66 49Self-prioritize (%) 32 27 18 28
Authentic (%) 82 72 88 80Emotional turmoil 2.34 (1.16) 2.47 (1.22) 1.93 (1.04) 2.59 (1.31)Relational well-being 3.40 (0.68) 3.35 (0.75) 3.69 (0.49) 3.36 (0.78)
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used as the reference category. Results supported our hypothesis in all four relationalcontexts (see Table 2). For each one-point increase in self-compassion, participantswere 61% more likely to compromise with mothers, 47% more likely to compromisewith fathers, 117% more likely to compromise with best friends, and 100% morelikely to compromise with romantic partners, relative to self-subordinating.Participants were also 53% more likely to compromise with romantic partners,relative to self-prioritizing. (Note that these percentages are calculated by taking theinverse of the odds for the predicted outcome, and subtracting 1.00.) All of thesedifferences were significant (see Table 2 for p values). Self-compassion was notsignificantly associated with greater likelihood to compromise rather than self-prioritize in the other three contexts.
We also present these models estimated separately by gender in Table 2. Thefinding that higher levels of self-compassion are associated with greater likelihood tocompromise relative to self-subordinate held in all contexts for females (marginallyso in conflicts with mothers), but only in the best friends and romantic partnercontext for men (marginally with best friends). The use of unstandardized betas fromthese regression models allows us to make relative comparisons of effects acrossmodels (Keith, 2006). Self-compassion had a stronger association with compromiserelative to self-subordination in the best friend context for females as compared tomales. In the romantic partner context, however, self-compassion had a strongerassociation with compromise relative to self-subordination for males compared tofemales.
Authenticity. Our next hypothesis was that participants who were higher in self-compassion would be more likely to solve conflicts in a way that felt authentic in allrelationship contexts. We tested this hypothesis by running a series of logisticregressions predicting authenticity for each relational context. For each one-pointincrease in self-compassion, odds for participants to resolve conflicts authentically(opposed to inauthentically) increased with mothers by a factor of 3.15 (a 215%increase), with fathers by a factor of 2.25 (a 125% increase), with best friends by afactor of 1.59 (a 59% increase), and with romantic partners by a factor of 1.63 (a63% increase). The association was significant for mothers, fathers, and romanticpartners (all ps5 .05), and marginally significant with best friends, p ¼ .10. Resultsheld in the mother and father contexts for both genders. However, the associationbetween self-compassion and authenticity with best friends was marginallysignificant for women (p ¼ .09) but non-significant for men (p ¼ .96). Also, self-compassion was marginally related to authenticity with romantic partners for men(p ¼ .07), but was non-significant for women (p ¼ .13).
Emotional turmoil and relational well-being. Our third and fourth hypotheseswere that participants with more self-compassion would report less emotionalturmoil when resolving conflicts, and also greater psychological well-being in theirrelationships. We tested these hypotheses by calculating Pearson’s correlationsbetween self-compassion and emotional turmoil and well-being scores in eachcontext. As expected, self-compassion was significantly associated with lessemotional turmoil in all four contexts: mothers, r ¼ 7.32; fathers, r ¼ 7.35; bestfriends, r ¼ 7.23; and romantic partners r ¼ 7.28 (all ps5 .05). Self-compassionwas also significantly associated with greater relational well-being in all contexts:mothers, r ¼ .23; fathers, r ¼ .29; best friends, r ¼ .22; and romantic partners, r ¼ .17(all ps5 .05). The statistical significance of these correlations held for both genders
152 L. M. Yarnell & K. D. Neff
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in all contexts (although the association between self-compassion and emotionalturmoil in conflicts with best friends among men was only marginally significant,p ¼ .07).
Mediation models. Finally, our last hypothesis was that the association of self-compassion with greater relational well-being would be partially mediated by conflictresolution style, specifically, compromise. To test this hypothesis, we relied onMacKinnon and Dwyer’s (1993) calculations for mediation with dichotomousmediators. In our mediation models, the predictor was self-compassion (acontinuous variable), the mediator was choice to compromise (a dichotomous, 0/1variable), and the outcome was relational well-being (a continuous variable). Weestimated models separately for each of the four relational contexts.
Sobel test statistics revealed that compromise significantly mediated theassociation of self-compassion with well-being in conflicts with fathers, z ¼ 1.962,p5 .05; and with romantic partners, z ¼ 3.043, p5 .01. However, in both models,self-compassion still significantly predicted relational well-being when both thepredictor and the mediator were entered into the model simultaneously, suggestingthat mediation was partial, b ¼ 0.32, p5 .001 for fathers; b ¼ 0.14, p5 .05 forromantic partners. Compromise did not significantly mediate the associationbetween self-compassion and well-being with mothers, z ¼ 1.533, p ¼ .13; or withbest friends, z ¼ 1.682, p ¼ .09.
When analyzed separately by gender, significant mediation was found for bothmen and women in the romantic partner context, z ¼ 2.136 for females and z ¼ 2.254for males, both ps5 .05. For females, a marginally significant regression coefficientfor self-compassion in the model with self-compassion and compromise simulta-neously predicting well-being with partners suggested partial mediation, b ¼ 0.16,p ¼ .055. However, for males, the regression coefficient for self-compassion was nolonger significant when self-compassion and compromise were simultaneouslyentered into the model, suggesting full mediation, b ¼ 0.10, p ¼ .22. Mediationdid not reach significance for the other contexts.
In order to simplify the discussion of study results, we will first discuss findings forthe sample as a whole, and later discuss gender differences in findings. Resultssuggest that our main hypothesis was supported: Self-compassionate individuals aremore likely to resolve relationship conflicts in a way that balances the needs of theself and others. Participants who were higher in self-compassion were significantlymore likely to report compromising rather than subordinating their needs in conflictswith mothers, fathers, best friends, and romantic partners. This suggests that self-compassionate individuals tend to value the personal needs and desires of boththemselves and their relationship partners, allowing them to resolve conflicts inrelationships in a healthy and productive manner (Gottman, 1994; Stein & Albro,2001; Zacchilli et al., 2009).
We had not advanced any hypotheses concerning whether or not self-compassionwould be associated with the tendency to prioritize personal needs in conflictsituations, and, in fact, self-compassion was not significantly associated with self-prioritization with mothers, fathers, and best friends. This makes sense, given thatpeople lacking in self-compassion should be no more likely to prioritize their ownneeds than those with higher levels of self-compassion. With romantic partners,
154 L. M. Yarnell & K. D. Neff
however, it was found that self-compassionate participants were less likely to self-prioritize (relative to compromise) than those who lacked self-compassion. Becauseconflicts with romantic partners are often emotionally intense, it may be thatindividuals with lower levels of self-compassion do not have the stable emotionalplatform needed to respond to conflicts in an evenhanded manner, being more likelyto both prioritize and subordinate their needs with partners as compared to self-compassionate individuals.
As expected, self-compassionate participants were also more likely to reportfeeling authentic when resolving relationship conflicts (in all contexts) than thosewho lacked self-compassion. The ability of self-compassionate people to acceptthemselves as they are may allow them to act in accordance with their inner thoughtsand values (Neff, 2003a; Neff et al., 2005), and therefore to assert themselves in anauthentic manner with relationship partners. Self-compassionate individuals alsoreported experiencing less emotional turmoil when trying to decide how to resolverelationship conflicts. When thorny relationship issues arise, self-compassion mayallow people to soothe and calm the intensity of their emotions, so that they canrespond to conflicts more peacefully (Kelly, Zuroff, & Shapira, 2009). Similarly,results indicated that greater self-compassion was linked to a greater sense of well-being within relationships. Self-compassion has consistently been associated withenhanced emotional resilience (Neff, 2009), and this appears to also hold true interms of how people feel about themselves within relationship contexts.
Results also indicated that the tendency of self-compassionate people tocompromise in conflict situations partially mediated the link between self-compassion and psychological well-being. The ability to problem solve in thisbalanced and constructive way is likely to enhance the quality and satisfying natureof interpersonal relationships (Gottman, 1994; Stein & Albro, 2001; Zacchilli et al.,2009). Results also support a self-determination theory model of healthyinterpersonal relationships (Deci & Ryan, 2000), which posits that meeting basicneeds for autonomy and connectedness via interpersonal interactions is central topositive relationship functioning (La Guardia & Patrick, 2008).
While some might see the subordination of personal needs as a commendable actof self-sacrifice, the cost associated with the continual denial of the self’s needs maybe high. For instance, caregivers who lack self-compassion are more likely toexperience compassion fatigue and burnout as a result of continually giving to otherswhile ignoring their own emotional needs (Ringenbach, 2009). Taken as a whole,these findings suggest that a compassionate stance toward oneself is associated withhealthier and more sustainable relationship interactions (Crocker & Canevello, 2008;Neff & Beretvas, in press).
Results were also analyzed separately by gender in this study. As found in priorresearch (Neff, 2003a), findings indicated that women had significantly less self-compassion than men (though the size of the difference was small). Women alsoreported feeling significantly less authentic than men when resolving conflicts withmothers, fathers and friends, and significantly greater emotional turmoil withmothers, fathers, and romantic partners. These results may be related to the fact thatfemales tend to be more self-critical and have a more ruminative coping style thanmales (Leadbeater, Kuperminc, Blatt, & Hertzog, 1999; Nolen-Hoeksema, Larson,& Grayson, 1999), meaning that they are less emotionally healthy when dealing withboth themselves and others. On the other hand there were no gender differences inrelational well-being, which calls this interpretation into question. Further researchwill be needed to understand this pattern of findings.
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In terms of the association between self-compassion and outcome variables, it wasfound that self-compassion significantly predicted resolution style in all relationshipcontexts for women, but only in the best friend and romantic partner contexts formen. While the reason for this pattern of findings is also unclear, it may be that thereis something about the involuntary nature of relationships with parents that makeconflict resolutions less influenced by self-attitudes for men than for women. Onceagain, more research will be needed to examine this issue.
While women in this sample were found to have less self-compassion than men, itappears to be a particularly helpful self-attitude for women in terms of allowing themto take both their own needs and those of their partners in relationship conflicts intoaccount. For example, one woman in the current study who was low in self-compassion described a conflict between herself and her romantic partner: ‘‘I gotjealous that he was still talking to his ex-girlfriend. He wanted to remain friends withher, but it was very hard for me to accept and understand that.’’ This participantreported that she chose to subordinate her needs anyway, explaining: ‘‘I always wantto please him and make him happy. I’m also scared that if I make him mad he willnot want to be with me. He is very persuasive and usually convinces me to see thingsfrom his point of view.’’ In contrast, a more self-compassionate woman explained aconflict with her romantic partner quite differently: ‘‘As a senior, I was VERY busywith school, cheer, sports, music and work. I put a lot of my time and effort intothese things because they were important to me. I know my boyfriend wanted tohave more time with me, but there just weren’t enough hours in the day.’’ Thisparticipant reported that she chose to compromise, explaining: ‘‘We have workedthings out in this way because we respected each other. We both had our own wantsand needs and our relationship was way more important to us than any issue we hadat some point in time.’’
Limitations and Future Directions
There were limitations to this research study, of course. For example, individualsmay have been biased when making self-reports of their relationship behavior. Giventhat fairness and equal rights are valued ideals in American culture, the tendency forindividuals to claim that they compromised in their relationships may have beeninflated. Moreover, self-reports of conflict resolution behavior were retrospective, soit is possible that in looking back at past conflicts, participants judged resolutionsmore positively than if their descriptions of the conflicts were more immediate. Eventhough self-compassionate people have been found to have greater self-clarity andtake more responsibility for past actions (Leary et al., 2007; Neff, 2003a; Neff &Vonk, 2009), one cannot be certain that memories of past conflict resolutions areaccurate.
Future research should aim to provide more objective assessments of individuals’relationship behavior, perhaps by comparing self-reports of conflict resolutionbehavior to partner reports to see if they are consistent. Of course, partner reports ofbehavior are also biased in their own way, and cannot be assumed to be moreaccurate than self-reports. Another useful approach would be to observe conflictresolution behavior in lab settings. It should be noted, however, that many of theconstructs measured in this study are intrapsychological and hard for others toassess. For example, the assessment that a resolution feels authentic or inauthenticmust necessarily be a subjective one. There are also some advantages to askingparticipants about naturally occurring real-life conflict situations as compared to
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observing conflicts in an artificial lab setting. Ideally, multiple methodologies shouldbe used in future research to more fully understand how self-compassion relates toconflict resolution behavior.
Additionally, it is important to note that the findings of this study do not infercausality, and the association between self-compassion and healthy relationshipbehavior may be bidirectional. In future research, mediation models such as the onesestimated here can be elaborated upon using structural equation modeling, whichallows the testing of competing hypotheses regarding directionality, as well as theestimation of models in which bidirectional effects are hypothesized. Moreover, thecurrent study did not control for order effects, which could have possibly influencedresponses. Future research should ensure counterbalancing of relationship contextsto control for this possible bias.
Finally, although the ethnic composition of this sample was relatively diverse(with only about half of participants being European American), it would also beworthwhile to examine the way that self-compassion impacts relationship behaviorwithin specific cultural contexts. It may be that in more collectivistic cultures the linkbetween self-compassion and conflict resolution styles operates differently. There issome research that suggests that self-compassion strongly enhances mental health inboth individualistic and collectivistic cultures, however (Neff et al., 2008), andcompromise has also been found to be the healthiest resolution style among MexicanAmericans as well as European Americans (Neff & Suizzo, 2006). Thus, it may turnout that the association between self-compassion and healthy relationshipinteractions is relatively universal.
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