There’s a mantra that pervades our culture: “No Pain, No Gain.” Stress and strife and constant busyness are worn as a badge of effort. In this world, any spare time not spent on your passion project is an indication that you’re not fully committed, you’re slacking. As the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, put it: “When you are tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easier on you.”
But this tough guy philosophy is misguided. Of course dedication and honest self-reflection are important, but studies are showing repeatedly that beating yourself up too often is counterproductive, as is excessive self-criticism. Rather, showing yourself kindness and respect isn’t being self-indulgent, it will help you overcome setbacks and find greater success.
Psychologists call this approach “self-compassion,” and in the words of one of the leading researchers in the field, Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin, it involves “being open and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.”
Self-compassion is not to be confused with self-esteem. This isn’t about having a big ego. People high in self-esteem tend to respond to failure by blaming factors beyond their control — this can help them deal with the disappointment but it’s not so useful from a learning perspective. By contrast, people high in self-compassion are honest about their own short-comings and contribution to failure, but they don’t beat themselves up for it. Rather, they comfort themselves, they recognize failure and mistakes as part of life, and they see the situation as a chance to grow.
Consider a study [pdf link] by Neff and her colleagues, published in 2005 in Self and Identity, that involved hundreds of students who’d just received a disappointing mid-term grade. Those who had a habit of showing themselves more self-compassion tended to respond to the academic setback with mastery goals (that is, they agreed with statements such as “I like school work that I’ll learn from, even if I make a lot of mistakes’’), rather than with performance goals (they disagreed that they would “feel really good if I were the only one who could answer the teacher’s question in class”). In other words, they were more interested in finding ways to learn and improve rather than being overly hung up on their grades and how they compared with their peers. The self-compassionate students were also more likely to respond to their disappointing performance by saying they would make the best of the situation, rather than looking for ways to distract themselves from what had happened.
If you need more convincing, there’s even research, published by psychologists at Brandeis University in 2014, that suggested a self-compassionate approach can change the way your body responds to stress. Juliana Breines and her collaborators showed this by giving people a surprise public speaking task and public math task to make them stressed, and then measuring signs of inflammation in their blood. Even after controlling for differences in self-esteem and other personality factors, people who were more inclined to self-compassion showed a smaller physiological stress response a short time after the tasks. One of the implications of this is that being self-compassionate could protect you from the health risks associated with the stress and pressure of creative work.
If your instinct is to respond to failures with self-loathing, don't worry. Thankfully it seems that self-compassion is something you can learn. Neff and her colleagues showed this in 2014 [pdf link] when they gave a brief form of self-compassion training – three 1 to 2 hour sessions held over three weeks – to undergrads and compared the outcomes to another group who spent the same time learning time management skills.
The self-compassion training involved learning to avoid overly self-critical thoughts, keeping a self-compassionate diary, and writing a letter to oneself about a recent disappointment, as if from the perspective of an unconditionally kind and accepting friend. Afterwards, the self-compassionate students scored higher than the other students on a raft of encouraging measures, including self-compassion but also optimism and self-belief.
A simple trick to borrow from this research is simply to treat yourself with the same kindness that you would a close friend. The next time you suffer a setback in your work, or you make an avoidable mistake and you’re feeling really angry with yourself, try stepping out of the situation for a second and think what you would say to your friend if she was the one who’d just had the book proposal rejected, or she was the one who’d forgotten her lines in a sales pitch. No doubt you’d remind her of her successes, how everyone makes mistakes, and that the situation actually shows ways she could develop her skill set. Above all, you’d be nurturing, not angry, and that’s the way you should aim to treat yourself too.
Like anything in life, self-compassion gets easier with practice. To help, Kirsten Neff has several exercises on her website that you could try out. Besides “How would you treat a close friend?”, others include learning to develop a more encouraging inner voice and taking short “self compassion breaks” where you reflect on past stressful events in a self-nurturing way.
But you might find that the hardest part to this is getting started on the path to self-compassion in the first place. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is you and your own beliefs about the connotations of being “too soft” on yourself. In a study out this year, a team led by Kelly Robinson at the University of Manitoba in Canada asked dozens of young adults to imagine how they would feel after being self-compassionate after a personal failure. Those people who were habitually less self-compassionate were inclined to say self-kindness would make them feel less industrious, ambitious, responsible, modest, careful, and competitive, as compared with the participants who practiced more self-compassion in their lives. On the other hand, the tough-on-themselves participants reckoned they’d feel stronger and more responsible if they responded to failure with self-criticism.
If this sounds like you, before you get going on the self-compassion exercises, the first thing you need to do is to confront your beliefs about what it means to be successful and competitive. Drop the tough guy act and stop holding yourself to impossible standards. Did you just give a poorly received public talk? We’ve all done that. Are you procrastinating on a major project? Who isn’t? Don’t crucify yourself for these failures. Don’t bury your head in the sand either. Accept that these setbacks are part of life and try to practice comforting yourself as you would a friend in a similar situation. By taking this attitude you’re more likely to be able to make the best of the situation and to learn from where you went wrong.
Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.