Accepting one’s imperfections is associated with lower rates of depression, anxiety, and psychological stress. But new research indicates that women who suffer abuse or neglect in childhood tend to be more fearful of relating to themselves in this way.
The study, published in the journal Mindfulness, examined whether self-compassion — and the fear of self-compassion — could help explain how experiences of childhood maltreatment led to heightened distress in later life.
“For 25 years, I have been studying the long-term impact of child maltreatment on women, focusing initially on childhood sexual abuse, and then expanding my focus to childhood physical and emotional/psychological abuse, and neglect (both physical and emotional),” said study author Terri L. Messman-Moore, a professor of psychology at Miami University and director of the Trauma & Emotion Regulation Laboratory.
“My research also examines the revictimization of child abuse survivors, with a focus on sexual assault among adolescent and adult women who experienced childhood abuse. Eventually, I started looking for factors that were associated with negative psychological outcomes associated with child abuse in adults, such as increased rates of depression and suicidality, PTSD, anxiety, substance use disorders, eating disorders, dissociation, self-harm, and risky sexual behavior.”
“My initial theory was that the negative psychological outcomes associated with child abuse (e.g., substance abuse) increase a woman’s risk for later sexual revictimization. After examining these outcomes related to revictimization, I started focusing on emotion dysregulation as a factor that may explain the risk for negative outcomes (like substance use or risky sex) and earlier childhood abuse.”
“After studying emotion regulation for about 10 years, I became interested in more ‘positive’ factors that may offset or compensate for emotion regulation problems, and that led to my interest in self-compassion and mindfulness. Self-compassion can be particularly difficult for survivors of childhood abuse, as it typically occurs within the home and by parents or caregivers. These experiences may interfere with the capacity of a child to learn self-compassion (as well as learning emotion regulation skills).”
In the study, 586 female undergraduates completed anonymous online surveys assessing the severity of different types of child maltreatment and several mental health outcomes. The study focused on women because they are more likely to suffer childhood maltreatment and have an increased risk for anxiety and depression compared to men.
The researchers found that greater severity of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and emotional and physical neglect was associated with greater fear of self-compassion. In other words, participants who reported more severe child maltreatment were more likely to agree with statements such as “I feel that I don’t deserve to be kind and forgiving to myself” and “I fear that if I am more self-compassionate I will become a weak person.”
“This suggests that regardless of the type of maltreatment, individuals who experienced one (or several) types of maltreatment, especially severe maltreatment, find the concept of self-compassion aversive for some reason, and may translate into difficulty giving themselves self-compassion,” Messman-Moore told PsyPost.
“This may be because they do not believe that they deserve self-compassion, it may be because they are afraid that they will ‘lose their edge’ or be less ‘successful’ if they engage in self-compassion, or it simply could be that they do not know ‘how’ to give themselves self-compassion (perhaps because compassion wasn’t modeled to them as a child).”
“For some people, the expression of love or caring (compassion) may be mixed with fear or anger and that can be confusing. This may be one reason that child maltreatment is so damaging because it is often coming from a parent, who is supposed to nurture or protect a child. When fear and love is mixed, it can be confusing and dysregulating,” Messman-Moore explained.
“People may come to fuse the experience of self-compassion with receiving love from parent figures, and this may be aversive. For others, there may be avoidance of self-compassion because it invokes a fear response, they realize what they did not receive or they feel ’empty.’ This can be connected to fear of receiving self-compassion from others (a related concept we didn’t study).”
While all forms of childhood maltreatment were associated with fear of self-compassion, only emotional abuse and neglect was linked to diminished self-compassion. The absence of self-compassion, in turn, was associated with depression, anxiety, and stress.
“This study, along with others in the field, points out how absolutely damaging emotional or psychological abuse and neglect can be,” Messman-Moore said.
“Most of our research on childhood abuse focuses on sexual and physical abuse. And, these are potentially damaging experiences. But, emotional abuse and neglect is more pervasive (it usually is multiple incidents occurring over time, a pattern), and overlaps with some dubious yet acceptable parenting strategies (e.g., shaming practices to induce cooperation or obedience).”
“Emotional neglect reflects the absence of an emotional connection or sense of belonging in one’s family and can be related to feeling unloved, that others did not feel the child was important or special, or that one’s family is a source of strength or support. Emotional neglect may result from parent figures who are impaired (e.g., depressed, dependent on drugs) or absent or narcissistic (e.g., focus on their iPhone, video games, or work to the exclusion of the kid),” Messman-Moore explained.
Like all research, the study includes some limitations.
“We need more information about the construct of self-compassion for men’s experiences. There is evidence that there may be sex differences in the experience of self-compassion and the ability to learn it, with women being lower in self-compassion than men (on average), but women also benefiting more than men for self-compassion-focused interventions,” Messman-Moore said.
The college sample is a good place to start, but we might see different patterns if we examine these relationships among people in a general community sample as well as those who are under psychiatric care or seeking outpatient psychological treatment for mental conditions such as depression.
“Last, this is a correlational study. We can assume that childhood abuse occurred far before the rest of the information was assessed, but we don’t really know the directional relationships between the self-compassion (and fear of self-compassion) variables and the psychological distress variables (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression). We cannot assume causality,” Messman-Moore added.
“However, there are good theoretical reasons to argue that child maltreatment may impede development of self-compassion or facilitate the development of fear of self-compassion. Longitudinal studies or treatment studies can tell us more about whether self-compassion can improve depression and anxiety (there is some evidence this does occur).”
The study, “Self-compassion and Fear of Self-compassion: Mechanisms Underlying the Link between Child Maltreatment Severity and Psychological Distress in College Women“, was authored by Terri L. Messman-Moore and Prachi H. Bhuptani.