When people ask me what I do and I tell them that I study self-compassion, they often get a hesitant expression on their face. I guess self-compassion is a good idea, they say, but can’t you be too self-compassionate? In fact, the number one reason people give for why they aren’t more self-compassionate is that they’re afraid if they’re too soft on themselves, they’ll let themselves get away with anything. They really believe that their internal judge plays a crucial role in keeping them in line and on track. In other words, they confuse self-compassion with self-indulgence.
As I’ve defined it in my academic writing, self-compassion involves three components: being kind and caring toward yourself rather than harshly self-critical; framing imperfection in terms of the shared human experience; and seeing things clearly without ignoring or exaggerating problems. Self-compassion also enhances rather than undermines motivation. While this may not be obvious at first, it’s easier to see if we think of how a mother might best motivate her child. Let’s say her son comes home with a failing exam grade, and she tells him “you’re so stupid and lazy, you’ll never amount to anything!” Will that be an effective motivator? Of course not. It might make him work harder temporarily, but ultimately it will just depress him and make him lose faith in himself. The mother would be more successful if she emotionally supported her child. “I know this is disappointing for you, but everybody messes up sometimes. It’s important that you improve your grades if you want to go to college, so let’s see if we can figure out a new study routine that works better. I know you can do it.” This type of kind encouragement will be more efficacious and long-lasting because it will give her child the confidence and backing needed to succeed.
It’s exactly the same with ourselves. When we are kind and supportive when we fail or notice something we don’t like about ourselves, we’ll want to make changes for the better. Not because we feel inadequate or worthless as we are, but because we care about ourselves and want to alleviate our own suffering. While the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from love. When we care about ourselves, we’ll try to change any behaviors that are causing us harm. We’ll also be much more likely to admit those areas of needed change because it’s emotionally safer to see ourselves clearly. If we’re harshly self-critical, we’re likely to hide the truth from ourselves – or even better yet – blame our problems on someone else, in order to avoid self-flagellation. If it’s safe to admit our own flaws, however, we can more clearly see the areas that need work.
Research strongly supports the idea that self-compassion enhances motivation. For instance, many studies show that people who are self-compassionate are less depressed and anxious than self-critics, meaning their state of mind is more conducive to putting forth effort. They also have higher “self-efficacy” beliefs, which means they have more confidence in their ability to succeed. Also, self-compassion has a strong negative association with fear of failure, whereas self-criticism exacerbates this fear. Who wants to take risks in life when you know failure will be met with harsh self-judgment? It’s much easier not to try. When you have self-compassion, however, you’ll trust that any failures will be met with kindness and support. You’ll remember that failure is part of life. This means you’ll be able to learn from your mistakes and grow from them.
In fact, research indicates that self-compassionate people are more likely to take personal responsibility for past mistakes than self-critics, but are also less emotionally upset by them. Other studies show that when people have self-compassion after failing at a task, they’re more likely to pick themselves up again and work towards new goals. Research demonstrates that self-compassionate people tend to set goals related to personal learning and growth rather than trying to impress others. They’re also more successful at their goals: self-compassion has been shown to help people remain motivated to exercise, quit smoking and to stick to their diets.
So don’t worry. If you start treating yourself with compassion you won’t sit around all day watching TV and eating buckets of Kentucky Fried chicken. Rather than encouraging self-indulgence, self-compassion helps motivate us to reach our full potential. And it sure feels a lot better than the whip!