Show Yourself a Little Compassion

You may think that being hard on yourself is the way to succeed, but it can actually sabotage your efforts. Try a more effective strategy.
Photo: Nicole Pasia

The author of this New York Times article argues that it’s time to stop being so hard on ourselves. Although it’s natural for us to monitor our thoughts and behaviors, assigning a negative value to our experiences can get us caught in an unhelpful rut – like when we needlessly re-play an embarrassing moment or berate ourselves for missing that one question on an exam. This is when self-criticism can be harmful and counterproductive. While we may think self-criticism is necessary to keep us trying our best, research shows the opposite: self-criticism actually leads to decreased motivation and productivity.

Self-Criticism vs. Self-Compassion

The solution? According to the article, it is self-compassion – “the practice of being kind and understanding to ourselves when confronted with a personal flaw or failure.” Rather than obsessing over our mistakes, the goal is to acknowledge and let go of them, so that we can move on to the next step with clarity and acceptance. When we quiet down the regions of the brain involved in worry, guilt, and self-judgment, we’re capable of achieving more.

Three Steps to Self-Compassion

Charlotte Lieberman, writing for the New York Times, describes three steps to self-compassion:

Step 1: Commit to treating yourself more kindly. Call this mindset letting go of self-judgment, going easier on yourself, practicing self-compassion or whatever resonates most. You can also interrupt the spiral of negative self-talk by focusing your energy on something external that you care about, which can help you establish perspective and a sense of meaning beyond yourself.

Step 2: Meet your criticism with kindness. If your inner critic says, “You’re lazy and worthless,” respond with a reminder: “You’re doing your best” or “We all make mistakes.”

Step 3: Most important – Practice. Make a deliberate, conscious effort to recognize the difference between how you feel when caught up in self-criticism, and how you feel when you can let go of it. Think about it this way: How much better might it feel to take a breath after making a mistake, rather than berating yourself? Practice what it feels like to treat yourself as you might treat a friend. And make it a regular habit.

Where Does This Get Me?

The benefits of going easy on yourself extend beyond personal achievement. Self-compassion can also lead to greater health and happiness, more authentic connection with others, and a sense of purpose related to promoting the common good.

About the Husky Experience Toolkit

The Husky Experience Toolkit is designed to help you make the most of your time at UW, wherever you are in your university career. The articles address four interconnected dimensions of the Husky Experience: Know Yourself, Know the World, Make Your Way, and Weave it Together.