Over the past 25 years, psychological science has witnessed an explosive rise of positive psychology. This research domain is chiefly concerned with the study of positive emotions and positive character traits, and their role in the promotion of physical and psychological well-being (Fredrickson and Losada 2005
; Seligman et al. 2005
). Self-compassion is a concept that seems to fit well under the umbrella of positive psychology; it refers to the tendency of maintaining a positive attitude towards oneself, when facing personal shortcomings, inadequacies, and failures. Neff (2003a
), who is one of the leading scholars in this field, has initially defined the construct as containing three components: (1) self-kindness, which refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with oneself when confronted with personal adversity rather than engaging in harsh self-criticism and self-judgment; (2) common humanity, which concerns the inclination to recognize that personal failures and problems are a normal part of human life rather than viewing such experiences as evidence for being separated and isolated from other people; and (3) mindfulness, which is defined as the ability to keep one’s difficulties and associated negative feelings in balanced awareness rather than becoming too absorbed and over-identified with them.
To measure individual differences in self-compassion, Neff (2003b
) constructed the Self-Compassion Scale (SCS), a 26-item questionnaire that measures the three core components of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness as well as their “negative” counterparts of self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification. The SCS yields a total score that combines the three core components and the reversely scored counterparts, which is reliable in terms of internal consistency and test-retest stability. The SCS has been widely applied in clinical and health psychology research to investigate the protective influence of self-compassion on psychological well-being. In general, this research has noted that self-compassion is negatively associated with anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health issues, underscoring the positive nature of the trait (MacBeth and Gumley 2012
In the meantime, critique has been raised regarding the validity of the SCS (Muris et al. 2016
). This criticism has mainly centered on the “negative” components of self-compassion (i.e., self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification), and their inclusion in the total score of the scale. For example, in a meta-analysis conducted by Muris and Petrocchi (2017
) investigating the relations between the SCS subscales and psychopathology, it was found that the positive components of self-compassion were negatively associated with mental health problems, which confirmed their hypothesized protective nature. In contrast, the negative components were positively linked to psychopathology, suggesting that these subscales tap increased vulnerability to mental health problems. Furthermore, tests for comparing the strength of the relations between various SCS subscales and psychopathological symptoms indicated that the negative components were significantly stronger associated with mental health problems than the positive components. This finding led the authors to conclude that the use of the SCS total score, which typically includes the reversely scored negative subscales, will probably result in an inflated negative relationship between self-compassion and symptoms of psychopathology. As such, it was argued that the total SCS score should not include the negative subscales.
This notion was further empirically tested by Muris (2016
) who administered the shortened version of the SCS (Raes et al. 2011
) that also assesses negative and positive components of self-compassion, and Achenbach’s (2009
) Youth Self-Report for measuring emotional and behavioral symptoms, in a sample of 184 non-clinical adolescents aged 12–16 years. As predicted, it was found that the positive components of self-compassion were negatively and the negative components were positively related to symptom levels. Yet, again the relations between negative components and symptoms were considerably stronger than those observed between positive components and symptoms. Most importantly, additional analyses showed that the percentage of explained variance in symptoms for the negative components of self-compassion was three to five times larger than that for the positive components. Muris (2016
) concluded that the negative subscales of the SCS appear to tap a number of toxic mechanisms that do not fit with the true protective nature of self-compassion, and that their inclusion in the total score will magnify the (negative) link with psychopathology.
A comparable conclusion was drawn by Pfattheicher et al. (2017
) who examined the relation between the negative and positive components of self-compassion as measured with the SCS and neuroticism, which is the personality trait that reflects a person’s susceptibility for experiencing negative emotional states and is generally associated with heightened levels of psychopathology (Ormel et al. 2013
). The researchers documented extremely high positive correlations between the negative subscales of the SCS and neuroticism (see also Lopez et al. 2015
), and hence concluded that these self-compassion components are completely redundant with this vulnerability personality trait.
In response to these critiques, Neff (2016a
) argued that the SCS is the most optimal measure for assessing self-compassion in the way she has theoretically defined the construct, namely as a balance between the compassionate features of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness, and the negative characteristics of self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification. To substantiate her argument, she referred to recently conducted factor analytic studies (Claire et al. 2018
; Neff et al. 2017
), which showed that the SCS is best represented by a bi-factor model, which assesses covariance between factors that arise from the presence of an overarching factor, in this case self-compassion, whilst allowing the individual factors (subscales) to retain and account for variance in their own subset of items. On the basis of these findings, Neff et al. (2017
) argued that her scale measures self-compassion as a multifaceted construct, but that there is also sufficient justification for using the total score as a general index of self-compassion. While providing evidence for the construct validity of the SCS and supporting Neff’s (2003a
) idiosyncratic definition of self-compassion, factor analytic research remains silent about other aspects of validity of the scale and especially its positive and negative components. In other words, the structure of an instrument can be fully in keeping with a theoretical notion (which means that the scale has good internal validity), but this does not necessarily imply that a scale actually measures what it intends to measure and hence has predictive value (i.e., external validity).
Self-compassion is a way of dealing with oneself when in pain or in trouble, and as such “can be conceptualized as a coping strategy that promotes well-being and positive psychological functioning” (Batts et al. 2010
, p.108). The SCS components of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness all seem to fit well with this conceptualization, but the negative components are less compatible with this notion. In fact, pure from a theoretical and definitional point-of-view, the negative components parallel psychopathological symptomatology. That is, self-judgment shows clear similarities with harsh self-criticism (Zuroff et al. 1990
), isolation shares features with social withdrawal and loneliness (Rubin et al. 2004
), and over-identification matches with self-absorption and self-focused rumination (Lyumbomirsky and Nolen-Hoeksema 2015
). These are all clearly negative features and therefore it is not surprising that critics question their validity and have associated them with neuroticism and psychopathology (Muris 2016
; Muris et al. 2016
; Muris and Petrocchi 2017
; Pfattheicher et al. 2017
). However, Neff (2016a
) has countered this critique by stating that the negative components of the SCS “are negative ways of relating to oneself that can lead
to psychopathological outcomes … but are not the same
as psychopathological outcomes … [and that] thus claims of tautology are not relevant” (p. 795). Critically, this remark implies that there is a direct causal chain between the negative components and psychopathology, while at the moment such cannot be concluded as available data are mostly correlational.
We continue the debate about this point and maintain that the negative components of the SCS have more in common with psychopathology than with coping. To further demonstrate the differential nature of the positive and negative components of self-compassion, we conducted a series of face validity checks of the SCS (Study 1) by asking two separate panels of psychologists and psychology students to categorize the items of this questionnaire (a) either as “cognitive coping” or as “psychological symptom,” and (b) as characteristic for a normal healthy or a clinically referred person. It was expected that SCS items belonging to the positive components of self-compassion would be more frequently categorized as “cognitive coping” and typical for a normal healthy person, whereas SCS items belonging to the negative components were hypothesized to be more often categorized as “psychological symptom” and characteristic for a clinically referred person. In addition, we administered a survey in a convenience sample of non-clinical adolescents (Study 2) to examine the relations between the positive and negative components of self-compassion as measured with the SCS on the one hand and symptoms of psychopathology (i.e., anxiety and depression) as well as coping styles on the other hand. Here, we predicted that the negative components of the SCS would be more intimately correlated with symptoms of anxiety and depression, while the positive components of the scale would be more closely connected to (positive) coping strategies. Further, we tested empirically whether the nature of the positive and negative components of self-compassion are indeed different by conducting a joint principal components analysis on the SCS subscales, symptoms, and coping strategies measures. We anticipated a two-component solution with the positive SCS subscales and adaptive coping strategies clustering on the one and the negative SCS subscales and symptoms clustering on the other factor. Finally, we used these data to demonstrate once again (see also Muris 2016
) that the link between self-compassion and symptoms of anxiety and depression to a large extent is carried by the negative components of the SCS, and that inclusion of these components in the total score inflates the relation between self-compassion and these types of psychopathology.
Study 1: Face validity checks
The results of Study 2 confirmed our hypothesis that there is a differential pattern of correlations between the negative and positive components of self-compassion on the one hand, and psychopathological symptoms and coping styles, on the other hand. More precisely, it was found that the negative SCS subscales were positively correlated with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and these correlations were in most cases also significantly stronger than the inverted correlations observed between the positive SCS subscales and these symptoms. This result mirrors Muris and Petrocchi’s (2017
) meta-analytic findings that self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification were all substantially and positively correlated with psychopathological symptoms, which made these authors conclude that these SCS subscales are likely to tap an increased vulnerability to mental health problems (Lopez et al. 2015
; Montero-Marin et al. 2016
). This of course also fits nicely with Pfattheicher et al. (2017
) conclusion that the negative SCS components are completely redundant with neuroticism, the personality factor characterized by a heightened susceptibility to experience negative emotions and an increased proneness to develop mental health problems.
The relations between self-compassion and coping were well in line with the theoretical notions of Batts Allen and Leary (2010
). The positive SCS subscales were all positively associated with adaptive coping styles such active tackling, social support seeking, and reassuring thoughts. Further, the negative SCS subscales were negatively correlated with adaptive coping strategies (although these correlations were often significantly weaker than those between positive SCS subscales and adaptive strategies) and to some extent positively correlated with maladaptive strategies such as passive reacting, avoidance, and expression of emotion. This general pattern of findings is also in line with an empirical study by Sirois et al. (2015
) who investigated the relationship between self-compassion and coping in two samples of participants suffering from a chronic illness (i.e., inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis). Although the researchers did not differentiate between the negative and positive components of the SCS, total self-compassion appeared to be positively linked to adaptive coping strategies (e.g., active coping, planning, and positive reframing) and negatively related to maladaptive strategies (e.g., behavioral disengagement and self-blame).
While the correlations with symptom and coping measures already indicated that the positive and negative subscales of the SCS exhibit divergent validity, we also conducted a joint factor analysis on all questionnaire data to further harden this point. As anticipated, a two-factor solution was found with the positive SCS subscales loading on a factor that was also composed of adaptive coping styles (i.e., reassuring thoughts, active tackling, and support seeking) and the negative SCS subscales significantly loading on a factor that further consisted of psychopathological symptoms (i.e., anxiety and depression) and maladaptive coping strategies (i.e., passive reacting, avoidance, and expression of emotion). These results once more demonstrate that the positive and negative components of self-compassion are quite different in nature.
The results of Study 2 further replicated the findings of Muris (2016
) by demonstrating that the negative subscales of the SCS have an important share in the relation between self-compassion and psychopathological symptoms. More precisely, it was found that the negative subscales of the SCS explained almost three times more of the variance in anxiety symptoms than the positive subscales. In the case of depression, the contributions of the negative and positive subscales were more in balance, with each accounting for about half of the variance in this type of symptoms. In any case, when taking into account that the negative components have so much in common with psychopathology in the first place, it is difficult to evade the conclusion that studying the link between the negative SCS subscales and psychopathological symptoms is a tautological exercise and that the inclusion of these subscales in a SCS total score will obviously inflate the relationship between self-compassion and psychopathology.
Although it should be acknowledged that both studies suffer from limitations (Study 1: we could have employed an open question rather than a forced choice format to assess the face validity of the SCS; Study 2: the reliability of some UCL-C coping scales was insufficient), the results indicate that the SCS, the commonly employed and popular scale for measuring self-compassion, is not the most optimal instrument for assessing this protective construct (Muris 2016
; Muris et al. 2016
). That is, face validity checks (Study 1) and empirical tests (Study 2) clearly revealed that the negative and positive subscales have a quite different character. The positive subscales are indicative for a healthy attitude towards oneself and can best be qualified as adaptive coping. They represent the good sides of self-compassion and reflect the true nature of this protective factor, which of course fits nicely within a positive psychology framework. In contrast, the negative subscales are concerned with an unwholesome attitude towards oneself and are fused with symptoms of psychopathology. They can be regarded as the bad sides of self-compassion, and are better removed from the SCS as they are indicators of vulnerability and emotional problems rather than protection (Muris and Petrocchi 2017
In a previous paper, Neff (2016b
) noted that “the assertion that use of a total SCS score inflates the link between self-compassion and psychopathology is a serious one [but] is in fact an empirical question.” We certainly agree with this notion, and in Study 2 we tested the merits of the total SCS score. The results (as well as those reported by Muris 2016
) clearly indicated that the inclusion of the negative subscales in the total score indeed magnify the relation with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, most researchers show too little awareness of this problem; they continue to use the SCS total score that is composed of both the positive and the negative subscales and seem to be ignorant of the fact that this scoring method inflates the effect sizes of their findings. Yet, if one is really interested in the protective nature of self-compassion, one should no longer rely on a total score that includes the negative subscales. Another strategy could be to at least report on the separate relations between the positive and negative components and psychopathology, so that researchers can actually inspect the presence of an inflation effect.
So far, Neff (2016a
) has maintained that the inclusion of the negative components of self-judgment, isolation, and over-identification in the SCS is justified because this is in accordance with her original definition of self-compassion. We have good reasons to designate Neff’s (2003a
) original definition of self-compassion as an unfortunate one. Besides the present findings, there is an increasing number of recent empirical studies showing that the positive and negative subscales of the SCS are totally different by nature (e.g., Brenner et al. 2017
; Coroiu et al. 2018
; Lopez et al. 2018
). Most importantly, the uniqueness of self-compassion lies in its protective nature represented in the three positive components, which makes this concept of special relevance within a context of mental health problems. The negative components are redundant in that they represent a number of maladaptive mechanisms that are obviously associated with neuroticism and psychopathology, and as such have already been (in our view: rightly) described as “old wine in new bottles” (Pfattheicher et al. 2017
, p. 160). We think that the time is ripe to openly acknowledge this to the field, so that researchers can really start to focus on the protective nature of self-compassion.