Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Treating Yourself with Compassion Helps You Change for the Better

Self-compassion helps you overcome failure

Recently, I was reading a book that compared the entrepreneurial communities in Silicon Valley and the Boston area.  In the early 1970s, both regions had a large number of high-tech companies.  By the late 1980s, though, there was a thriving community of startup companies in Silicon Valley, while the Boston area had a smaller number of large companies, many of which were struggling to survive.

One of the striking differences between the regions was their tolerance of failure.  In the Boston area, people in the high tech community were reluctant to go out on their own and start a new company, because if they failed, they felt it would count strongly against them when they looked for another job. In contrast, in Silicon Valley, new companies failed all the time, and it was expected that an entrepreneur might fail several times before having some success.

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At the surface, it is tempting to say that the cultures of Silicon Valley and Boston promoted a different level of fear of failure. An interesting paper in the September, 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Juliana Breines and Serena Chen suggests that the difference might actually lie in the self-compassion promoted by each region.

Self-compassion is the degree to which people treat themselves with warmth and understanding.  People are not hard on themselves are treating themselves with self-compassion. At one level, this might feel similar to self-esteem, which is the degree to which people think of themselves positively.  But, you can treat yourself with compassion without necessarily feeling positively toward yourself.

In one study, the researchers manipulated people’s level of self-compassion by having them think about a personal weakness or shortcoming. The self-compassion group wrote a paragraph about how they would talk to themselves about this weakness from a perspective of compassion and understanding. A second group was given self-esteem instructions. They were asked to write about talking to themselves about how to validate their positive qualities.

 After writing, participants were asked to rate the degree to which they thought that the weakness they described was a permanent quality of themselves or something that could be changed.  The self-compassion group rated the weakness as more changeable than the self-esteem group.

 In another study in this series, participants took a difficult vocabulary test. Before taking the test, the self-compassion group was told not to be too hard on themselves if they did poorly, while the control group was not. The test was hard enough that on average, participants only got about 40% of the answers correct. After taking the test, participants were told that they were going to take a second test later and were given time to study before taking the test.  The self-compassion group studied 30% longer than the control group. 

 What does this mean?

There are two ways to interpret failure. One is to see failure as a reflection of who you are. If you fail, then you yourself are a failure. A second possibility is that you see failure as a challenge to be overcome. 

Self-compassion helps people to view failure as a challenge. The way to overcome failure is to try again and to work harder the next time. The studies suggest that self-compassion is more likely than self-esteem to lead people to treat failures as challenges. 

This work also suggests that the culture of Silicon Valley promoted self-compassion. Entrepreneurs were taught to think of failure as a natural part of the business process and not a reflection on their capabilities. In the long-run, this attitude may have played an important role in making Silicon Valley the thriving hub of high-tech business that it is today.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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