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Does Self-Compassion or Criticism Motivate Self-Improvement?

New research finds that forgiving yourself works best.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you already know where I stand on this issue. Self-compassion beats self-criticism any day, and in every way. But I had to share the latest set of studies showing how important self-compassion is for motivating change.

The research was led by Juliana Breines at the University of California, Berkeley, and published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The effect of self-compassion was tested in four different experiments (each using different participants, including college students and a broader sample of adults in the U.S.).

All four experiments asked participants to think about something that would typically elicit self-criticism. In two studies, participants were asked to identify what they considered to be their biggest weakness or shortcoming. In another study, participants recalled a recent time when they did something they felt was wrong and experienced guilt, remorse, and regret. Finally, in one study, participants took a very difficult test, choosen to induce a sense of struggle and frustration.

In each experiment, researchers then gave some participants a self-compassion induction. For the first three studies, participants wrote for 3 minutes in response to the instructions: "Imagine that you are talking to yourself about this [weakness/action] from a compassionate and understanding perspective. What would you say?"

For the difficult test study, the experimenter shared a self-compassion message after participants struggled with the test: "If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself."

In each experiement, participants who practiced a self-compassionate mindset showed greater willingness to learn from and improve on their self-perceived weakness, mistake, or failure. For example, they were more interested in studying to improve performance on the difficult test, and they were more likely to want to take action to reduce the harm of their previous misdeeds. They also had greater optimism that their personal weakness could be changed.

The good news of this study is not just that self-compassion supports self-improvement. It's how easy it can be to shift from a self-critical or self-enhancing mindset to a self-compassionate mindset. Writing for 3 minutes? That's something all of us can do when we need a little encouragement and motivation. These studies suggest that you can choose a self-compassionate point of view, and this will help you recover from setbacks and pursue positive change.

Research cited: Breines JG, Chen S. Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2012 May 29. [Epub ahead of print]

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University and the author of The Neuroscience of Change: A Compassion-Based Program for Personal Transformation and The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

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