Self-Compassion Across Cultures

Self-Compassion Across Cultures

This blog is part 3 of 4 and was written by Hina Wain, a therapist in training who interned at Centered Therapy Chicago this past year.

What does self-compassion look like across cultures?

Self-compassion may be in part informed by one’s culture, group norms, values, and practices. Generally speaking, Asian cultures are described as collectivist in nature. Asian communities can hold an interdependent view of the self where concerns about interpersonal connectedness, social conformity, and care for others are highly valued. In contrast, Western cultures are understood as more individualistic.

As with many other groups, guilt and shame can be instrumental forces that shape the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals in collectivist cultures. In my experience as a South Asian, being shameless was understood as an insult which highlighted a lack of consideration for the perceptions of the community. How I see myself may be heavily determined by how I treat my parents or my reputation in the community, for example. This function of shame can also make self-compassion seem hard to practice in collectivist cultures. 

Given the Buddhist roots of mindfulness practice as well as the interdependence in Asian traditions, we might assume that Asian cultures practice self-compassion more than Western cultures. 

This assumption, however, has been challenged by research that has suggested that individuals in interdependent cultures such as Japan are actually more self-critical than those in the West. In some collectivist cultures, explicit self-criticism is justified by the belief that being aware of one’s personal shortcomings may facilitate self-improvement that improves agreeableness in the group. Feelings like shame and guilt may be used to regulate behaviors differently across cultures. 

So, do people from collectivist cultures show higher or lower levels of self-compassion compared to people from the West? The answer is—it depends. 

Research has suggested that self-compassion levels differ across and even within collectivist cultures. Different religious beliefs, cultural worldviews, and parenting practices may convey different messages about how we should treat ourselves. For this reason, self-compassion cannot be presumed to be a one-dimensional cure-all because there is diversity not only across but within cultures and traditions. Self-compassion for individuals from collectivist cultures may require a more nuanced understanding of the messages about how to treat oneself. While individuals from some collectivist cultures may see self-criticism as a form of self-improvement that maintains group connection, what we know for sure is that self-criticism does come at a psychological cost. While self-compassion is emphasized differently across cultures, the psychological benefits of the practice are universal.

Find out more about the benefits of self-compassion in part four of this series.