The number-one reason people give for why they aren’t more self-compassionate is the fear that they will be too easy on themselves. Without constant self-criticism to spur myself on, people worry, won’t I just skip work, eat three tubs of ice cream and watch Oprah reruns all day? In others words, isn’t self-compassion really the same thing as self-indulgence?
Before answering that question, it’s first worth considering whether self-criticism is really the great motivator it’s cracked up to be. Research shows that self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and depressed — not exactly get-up-and-go mindsets. They also have lower self-efficacy beliefs (i.e., self-confidence in their abilities), which undermines their potential for success. The habit of self-criticism engenders fear of failure, meaning that self-critics often don’t even try achieving their goals because the possibility of failure is unacceptable. Even more problematic, self-critics have a hard time seeing themselves clearly and identifying needed areas of improvement because they know the self-punishment that will ensue if they admit the truth. Much better to deny there’s a problem or, even better, blame it on someone else.
But is a compassionate response to our shortcomings any better? Yes.
It’s relatively easy to see when we think about how a compassionate and caring parent might motivate a child who is struggling. Although parenting manuals of the past often endorsed a harsh and critical approach — spare the rod and spoil the child — decades of research have shown that this tactic is counterproductive. Let’s say your teenage daughter Mary comes home from school with a failing math grade. If you say, “You’re so stupid and lame! What a loser! You’re hopeless and will never amount to anything!” is that really going to help motivate Mary? Instead it will probably depress her to the point of wanting to give up math all together. Much more effective would be to take an understanding and supportive approach: “I know you’re disappointed, especially since you need to get good math scores to get into college, and clearly something is not working in your study routine. But I know you can do it, and I’ll help you in any way I can. Maybe you need to spend more time doing homework, or go to a tutor.” This compassionate approach is much more likely to give Mary the emotional resources needed to pick herself up and try again.
Note that a caring mother does not tell her child “don’t worry about it” if she’s making failing grades in school. Parents want their children to be healthy and happy, and blowing off problems that need attention will only make things worse. Good parents don’t let their kids get away with anything — they set healthy boundaries, say no, tell their kids to eat vegetables and not just candy. But they do it in a way that maximizes rather than undermines the support needed to succeed.
It’s exactly the same when we take a caring and compassionate approach with ourselves. Compassion is concerned with the alleviation of suffering. When we feel compassion for our own pain — especially when the pain comes from our maladaptive habits and behaviors — we want to heal our pain. We want to makes changes and improvements that will help us suffer less. While the motivational power of self-criticism comes from fear of self-punishment, the motivational power of self-compassion comes from the desire to be healthy. Self-compassion recognizes that failure is not only inevitable, but it’s also our best teacher, something to be explored rather than avoided at all costs. Self-compassion also allows us to acknowledge areas of personal weakness by recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. We can then work on improving ourselves, not because we’re unacceptable as we are, but because we want to thrive and be happy.
These are not just “nice” ideas. There is an ever-increasing body of research that attests to the motivational power of self-compassion. Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals. Instead, research shows that they’re more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration and disappointment. Self-compassionate people have more intrinsic motivation in life — trying hard because they want to learn and grow, not because they need to impress themselves or others. Self-compassionate people are more likely to take responsibility for their past mistakes, while acknowledging them with greater emotional equanimity. Research also shows that self-compassion helps people engage in healthier behaviors like sticking to their weight-loss goals, exercising, quitting smoking and seeking medical care when needed.
So self-compassion is not the same as being easy on ourselves. It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.