In this new year, Sean Locke is encouraging people to ditch the self-criticism.
The Assistant Professor of Kinesiology says developing self-compassion might be tough, but with practice and perseverance it can be done.
“Because many of us tend to be self-critical most of the time, being kind to ourselves requires a degree of mindfulness,” he says.
Locke is an expert in health behaviour change. His research focuses on developing programs that help people improve their health by changing their thinking and adopting actions such as diet and exercise.
A challenging mental health issue for many is self-criticism. While this can help people refocus their energies and behaviours in specific short-term situations, ongoing negative self-talk is destructive in the long term, says Locke.
“The big downside to self-criticism is that it erodes away our self-esteem or self-concept, and that can increase the risk of depression or anxiety,” he says.
“Self-compassion can help us reorient our efforts when we fail to meet our expectations and also protects our self-esteem,” he says. “It’s a psychological resource that allows us to bounce back when we face barriers, challenges and setbacks in our behaviour change efforts.”
Locke has just wrapped up a partnership with the Kelowna-based company Switch Research in which he evaluated the company’s Self-Love Journal containing tools and strategies “that will help you boost self-compassion and silence negativity,” says the company’s website.
The 90-day journaling program covers topics such as self-kindness, common humanity, mindfulness, self-acceptance, patience, and gratitude.
Locke’s research involved 66 participants of various ages divided into two groups. One group was given a copy of the 90-day journal to use while the other half were in a control group waiting to receive their journal after the 90 days.
Participants in both groups filled out surveys during and after the process asking them to rate their agreement with a range of statements such as, “I view that mistakes are made by everyone,” “When I make a mistake, I’m kind to myself.”
They also answered open-ended questions about their experiences with self-compassion.
“Compared to people who were on the waitlist, those who went through the journal program had significantly greater improvements in self-kindness, mindfulness and their view of common humanity, which are the three key facets of self-compassion,” says Locke.
To explore the meaning of “self-compassion,” Locke refers to the explanation put forth by self-compassion and health research expert Kristen Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin who pioneered the concept of “self-compassion” two decades ago.
“She defines ‘mindfulness’ as involving intertwined processes of being present in one’s moment-to-moment experience and approaching these processes with an open heart and mind,” says Locke. “The ‘view of common humanity’ means recognizing that suffering, pain, and imperfection are all part of the human condition.”
Locke says journaling may help improve self-compassion skills, over time by reinforcing pathways in the brain that enable us to be kinder to ourselves.
“Journals can help guide a person in purposeful reflection by keeping self-kindness on the forefront of their minds so that we don’t default to the criticism,” he explains. “The more often we can think about being self-compassionate, the more likely we are moving forward to be self-compassionate in the future.”
He says writing long-hand compared to typing on a computer may “slow us down,” since “our thoughts have to keep up with our typing.” People writing in a journal are less likely to worry about sentence structure, grammar, and spelling, which could detract from the free-flow of ideas, he says.
The research has been submitted for publication.
Locke and his students have also formed a partnership with CoreHealth Technologies to test and refine an app developed by the health and wellness company to measure heart rate variability (HRV) as part of their stress-reduction services.
Involved in that research is Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Stephen Klassen, whose work explores how the brain regulates the heart and blood vessels to maintain optimal blood flow and blood pressure in healthy individuals and how these mechanisms fail with aging and disease.
The two researchers have finished gathering their data to validate whether or not the company’s app accurately measures HRV and to later test if getting feedback from the app motivates people to change their health behaviours. They plan to submit their findings to academic journals early this year.