Emma Seppälä Ph.D.

Feeling It

4 Proven Ways to Show Yourself More Love

2. Write yourself a letter. (Really.)

Posted Feb 17, 2016

Source: Aleshyn_Andrei/Shutterstock

Whether we’re high-powered executives or stay-at-home parents, self-criticism is a tendency that many of us share. In fact we often think of self-criticism as key to self-improvement. We fall for the idea that self-criticism pushes us to perform better and to live up to higher standards—but we couldn’t be more wrong. Research shows that self-criticism is more akin to self-sabotage. It actually hurts our performance, productivity, and well-being.

Women in particular tend to be highly self-critical. They tend to blame themselves when they fail, and to attribute their successes to other people and circumstances. (Men tend to do the opposite—blame circumstances if they fail and attribute their wins to themselves.) This is one reason why women often fail to ask for promotions.

Here are the ways research shows self-criticism holds you back:

  • It keeps you focused on what’s wrong with you, thereby decreasing your confidence.
  • It makes you afraid of failure which hurts your performance, makes you give up more easily, and leads to poor decision-making.
  • It makes you less resilient in the face of failure and also less likely to learn from mistakes.

The benefits of self-compassion, "soft" as that concept may sound, is backed by hard data—much of which has been compiled by pioneer researcher Kristin Neff. Self-compassion has been linked to a host of benefits. It means treating yourself as you would a friend in times of failure or pain—with more understanding and kindness. It means remembering Alexander Pope’s quote that “to err is human” —we all make mistakes. And it means being mindful of your emotions and thoughts without over-identifying with them. Self-compassion doesn’t mean being overly self-indulgent but it also doesn’t involve beating yourself up to no avail.

Here’s how self-compassion can give you an extra edge:

  • It increases motivation and willpower.
  • It brings you greater perspective and therefore better decision-making.
  • It makes you more resilient: You more easily bounce back in the face of failure and learn from your mistakes.
  • It makes you more emotionally intelligent and therefore improves your relationships.
  • It lowers you stress levels and decreases feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • It boosts your psychological well-being and decreases anxiety and depression.
  • It improves your health.

Applying self-compassion can take some practice. Here are 4 empirically-validated ways to do so:

1. Notice your self-talkNeff suggests that in times of failure or challenge, noticing your self-talk can help you curb self-criticism and replace it with self-compassion. For example, instead of saying things like, “How could I have done this? I’m such an idiot!” you might say, “I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that’s okay. It could have happened to anyone; it’s no big deal.”

2. Write yourself a letter. When your emotions are overwhelming, Neff suggests writing a letter to yourself as if you were writing to a friend. Let’s say you made a costly error and are feeling angry with yourself. It might feel stilted or strange at first, but write a letter as if you were writing it to someone dear to you who had committed the same mistake. Your words should comfort and not attack, normalizing the situation rather than blowing it out of proportion. A number of studies demonstrate that writing about your emotions can help regulate them.

3. Develop a self-compassion phrase. Neff suggests developing
 a self-compassion mantra or phrase that you can turn to in challenging situations, so you can deal with them calmly and with grace. Hers is: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need.”

4. Make a daily gratitude list. Write down five things you feel grateful for every day. Again, this may sound overly simplistic. However, this extremely short exercise has been shown to produce powerful and long-lasting results. To increase your self-compassion, at the end of each day, write down five things you are proud of having accomplished or five positive qualities you see in yourself.

Source: HarperOne

Adapted from my new book THE HAPPINESS TRACK by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Copyright © 2016 by Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.