The Paradox Mindset-Both/And Thinking

April 22, 2024
Molly Cooper

Molly Cooper

The final exam period tends to be one of the most stressful times of the year, making it one of the best times to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is marked by how we graciously relate to ourselves, especially during times of perceived failure, inadequacy, personal suffering or hardship (Neff, 2023).

Substantial research on self-compassion is important for greater happiness, positive affect and life satisfaction (Zessin et al., 2015). People high in self-compassion demonstrate higher levels of hope, gratitude, curiosity and vitality (Gunnell et al. 2017; Neff et al. 2007, 2018a). Furthermore, studies have found that there is an inverse correlation between self-compassion and negative mental states such as depression, anxiety, stress, loneliness, suicidal ideation and shame (Ferrari et al. 2019, Hughes et al. 2021, MacBeth and Gumley 2012, Marsh et al. 2018, Suh and Jeong 2021).

To understand how we can elevate self-compassion, it is helpful to highlight the three core components (Neff, 2023):

  • Self-kindness vs. Self-judgement - We are often our own harshest critics. Practicing self-kindness involves not only ending self-criticism but also showing genuine concern for ourselves the way we would for others whom we care about who are struggling.
  • Common Humanity vs. Isolation We often feel a sense of separateness when we are struggling (e.g. everyone seems to be doing better than me) – but to practice self-compassion, it is important to recognize that we are not alone in the challenges we face and that they are one of the things that make us human just like everyone else.
  • Mindfulness vs. Overidentification If we cannot turn toward our pain and process it mindfully, then we can become overidentified with the negative emotions that we are repressing in unhealthy ways (e.g. ‘I am a mistake’ vs. ‘I made a mistake’).

Several common misconceptions prevent people from practicing self-compassion. However, research conducted on each of these theories has shown:

Self-compassion makes you tougher. Practicing self-compassion has been shown to make one more resilient in the face of many of life’s greatest challenges such as divorce (Sbarra et al. 2012), domestic violence (Allen et al. 2017), sexual assault (Hamrick and Owens 2019), natural disasters (Yuhan et al. 2021), raising a special needs child (Neff and Faso 2015), prejudice (Vigna et al. 2018) and trauma (Luo et al. 2021).

Self-compassion improves motivation and good habits. Self-compassion is positively correlated with high-performance standards (Suh and Chong, 2022), personal initiative (Dundas et al., 2017), less procrastination (Sirois et al., 2019), more improvement after mistakes (Zhang and Chen, 2016) and improved athletic performance (Kuchar, 2022).

Given these advantages, practicing self-compassion during the finals is helpful. Here are a few practical ways to do this.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation can be a great way to acknowledge negative feelings without letting them consume you. Here are some other Steps to Leaps posts that give more information about practicing: My Experience With Mindfulness and Mindfulness Meditation.

Journaling studies found that writing a compassionate letter to yourself over five days decreased depression levels and increased happiness (Shapira & Mongrain 2010).

Rest and Relaxation. Even though it may feel like there isn’t time to sleep, exercise or do some fun activities, giving yourself this break when appropriate is a great way to practice self-compassion during finals and it might even help your grades.

Community. One of the great privileges of college is that you have so many people around you going through the same stress and struggle during this period - so don’t bury yourself in books, take breaks with friends to commiserate or lean on classmates in study groups. You got this! 

Molly Cooper: Molly Cooper received a Bachelor of Arts in Theoretical Mathematics from Amherst College in 2022. She is currently working as a research manager in the Well-being and Measurement Lab with Louis Tay, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. Molly’s research interests broadly include career development, identity, close relationships, anxiety/OCD and ADHD.


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