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Painfully Self-Critical? Try These 3 Self-Compassion Tips

Also, self-compassion makes you happier, healthier, and more successful.

Key points

  • Self-criticism is destructive, as countless research studies have shown.
  • Self-compassion, also well-researched, is one of the most fundamental determinants of resilience and success.
  • There are three components to self-compassion: being kind to yourself, understanding that making mistakes is part of being human, and trying mindfulness.
  • Noticing your self-talk, communicating with yourself as you would a friend, and developing a positive mantra are all ways to boost self-compassion.

Laura seemed to have it all: She was blonde, beautiful, athletic, radiant, and brilliant; she was one of those rare students who made all A’s and A+’s at Yale. She appeared to be the epitome of success. In an already academically gifted student body, she stood out a head above everyone else.

Two years into her college experience, and despite all of her accomplishments, Laura dropped out. Laura had the skills and motivation to do well at Yale, but how she perceived herself was standing in the way of her success.

Laura had always been an A student—that’s who she was for as long as she could remember. She felt she had to achieve perfection and had an immense fear of failure, so she only took classes she knew would result in good grades. When she didn’t do well or struggled to get top marks in all her classes—as was bound to eventually happen in college—she was tough on herself to motivate herself to try harder and stay focused. Fueled by these beliefs, Laura achieved perfect grades—and perfect misery.

“I remember feeling gnarled and self-critical all of the time,” Laura told me. She ended up suffering depression and anxiety. “I have to leave so I can learn to loosen the reins on myself,” she said.

And that’s what she did. Over time, Laura turned the self-critical and extreme demands she had placed on herself on their head. She developed a gentler approach that involved more friendliness to herself, greater leniency with her own shortcomings, and a broader and more mindful perspective. In sum, she became what researchers call “self-compassionate.”

Rather than being driven solely by external motivations, focusing her attention and energy outward on academic or athletic goals, she developed an awareness of her own needs and was kind to herself when she faced setbacks. And soon, she began to smile her radiant smile again. She continued to excel but no longer at the price of her own well-being.

Scientific evidence supports what Laura figured out intuitively: Self-compassion is one of the most fundamental determinants of resilience and success. Where self-criticism leaves us powerless and distraught, self-compassion is at the heart of empowerment.

What exactly is self-compassion?

Self-compassion involves treating yourself as you would treat a colleague or friend who may not have lived up to expectations in a given situation. Rather than berating, judging, and thereby adding to your friend’s despair, you listen with understanding. You encourage your friend to remember that mistakes are only normal without adding fuel to the fire.

Psychologist Kristin Neff pioneered research on self-compassion and has outlined its three components as follows:

  • First, being kind to yourself. Self-compassion involves treating oneself with understanding and patience rather than with shaming, criticism, or harsh reprimand. It involves engaging in a positive and encouraging internal dialogue, telling yourself, “Try better next time,” “You’re doing fine,” “So you messed up this time; no big deal.”
  • Second, understanding that you are part of humanity: Everyone makes mistakes. “To err is human,” wrote Alexander Pope. Knowing that everyone confronts failure sooner or later helps you become less critical and upset when it’s your turn. You can reframe failure as a normal occurrence and, therefore, be less shaken up by it. You remind yourself that “this can happen to anyone” and that “everyone fails sometimes." You come to realize that there are areas of your professional or personal life in which you still need to grow or develop greater skills, and you will set about your day with renewed resolve to address those weaknesses.
  • Third, practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of your thoughts and feelings and to observe them with perspective and distance and without over-identifying with them. Instead of succumbing to a torrent of emotion, including anger at yourself, just observe the thoughts and feelings that come up like you would observe a storm from your window until it passes. Mindfulness does not involve suppressing or denying these feelings; rather, it's being with them as they really are.

As the Science Director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, I know all too well that any term that involves “compassion” can, at first impression, sound “soft” or idealistic. But self-compassion is anything but—it’s smart. It allows you to be successful without sabotaging yourself.

It does not mean, for example, letting yourself off the hook when you fail or make mistakes. It simply means that you approach these setbacks in a more productive way: learning from them instead of beating yourself up. Neff’s research demonstrates that by engaging in self-compassion, we bring out the best in ourselves. Self-compassion—as opposed to self-criticism—helps people thrive and is associated with higher psychological well-being, better physical health, and improved professional and personal skills.

3 tips to make self-compassion a habit

  • First, notice your self-talk. Neff 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 oversight, and that’s OK; it could have happened to anyone; no big deal.”
  • Second, write yourself a letter. If emotions are overwhelming, then Neff also suggests writing a letter to yourself as if you were writing to a friend. Let’s say that you made a costly error and are feeling angry at 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 done the same error. Your words would comfort, not attack, and would normalize the situation rather than blowing it out of proportion. However, a number of studies demonstrate that writing about your emotions can help regulate them.
  • Third, 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. Her mantra 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.”

After leaving Yale, Laura took a year off to get in touch with herself: to reflect on what she truly wanted and to learn how to loosen the reins on herself. Laura participated in a wilderness expedition program and worked at a bookstore that specialized in mystery novels—a genre she loved. After her year hiatus, she transferred to another university in her hometown to live close to the nurturing environment of her family home.

She eventually went to law school, currently works at a federal agency in Washington DC, and is happily married. She is adamant not to transmit the false parameters of success that once stripped her of resilience. “I don't want my daughters to feel the same suffocation that I felt,” she told me.

By fundamentally changing her relationship with herself—both how she perceived her strengths and weaknesses and how she treated herself—Laura was able to find happiness and a more sustainable path to success. That’s the power of self-compassion.

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