You are upset by not reaching your goals. The goals could be anything: you might want to stop smoking, be less anxious, or perform better as a student, salesperson or basketball player. But whatever they are, falling short of your goals leaves you angry with yourself and demoralized. Each self-criticism hangs like a weight, pulling you down and making it more difficult to continue striving. Instead of being so harsh with yourself, consider trying a radically different approach. Self-compassion. Before dismissing the idea (and this article), remember what you are doing is not working. So, just take a moment to consider the possible benefits of being kind, caring and supportive to yourself.
If you are like many people, you may associate self-compassion with being weak, or letting yourself off the hook for mistakes. They imagine that if they are kind to themselves when they fail at something, they will become complacent and not bother pushing themselves toward success – after all, why bother trying if everything I do is okay? But that’s not what happens when people feel compassionately toward themselves.
Self-compassion begins with having empathy for your struggles. You recognize how very much you want something (e.g. to lose weight, to make friends) and that your failed efforts hurt. When you respond by attacking yourself for failing, you just add to your pain. Then, rather than being able to re-focus on how to improve, your attention is inevitably pulled toward the self-inflicted pain. But if you have compassion for your struggles, you will feel comforted by the sense of acceptance for your very human difficulty. The message is that you are essentially okay and good, even though the feelings are painful. Feeling positively about yourself, you will still feel motivated to achieve your goal and will be better able to re-group to find a better way forward.
The key to the power of self-compassion is that it affirms you as a person. It says that who you are, what you feel, and the goals you have are all important. Rather than making you complacent in your failure (which many people fear will happen), it can re-energize you to express and pursue what is important to you.
Some people struggle with the idea of having self-compassion because they don’t think they deserve it. They think that performing well is essential, because they don’t have value as a person. If this describes you, then it is essential that you begin by developing a sense of feeling worthy. Please read my article What To Do When You Feel Like a Failure to help you feel worthy of the self-compassion suggested here.
One way to nurture self-compassion is to remember a time when someone believed in you and was supportive. Replay how you felt, knowing they cared about you. Then, practice applying a similar approach to yourself when faced with new struggles. If this feels too difficult, imagine how you would respond to a child having a struggle similar to yours; and how that child would respond. Then try providing yourself with this same response. These types of thought experiments must be practiced many, many times before you will feel less resistant to (and ultimately comfortable with) approaching yourself with self-compassion.
It can help to think about change as growing rather than fixing a problem, like you would fix a broken computer. When you’re repairing a computer, you cannot hurt its feelings. You do not set it back, or encourage it to be different based on how you treat it. But you are different from a mechanical object. You are a feeling being, and this makes all the difference.
You want to change because you want to feel happier, or more whole – you want to feel differently in some way. This means that your emotions are important. So, pay attention to them. Respect them. When you feel knocked off your feet by failures or setbacks, self-compassion can help you feel cared about and want to get up again. Self-compassion can give you the strength to persist in achieving your goals.
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships Message Board.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness