What if the pathway towards greater success and happiness is through being kinder to yourself? What if you knew that the critical voice in your head is not actually motivating you in the way you think that it is? What if you understood that you can experience increased motivation, take better responsibility and improve performance in all areas of your life through simple shifts in your self-talk?
The good news is that you don’t have to hear it from me; you can trust the research. Kristin Neff, leading researcher on self-compassion, notes that there are over 2500 studies about self-compassion and the results are overwhelmingly clear: greater self-compassion leads to less anxiety and depression, better productivity and motivation, more capacity to learn from mistakes and correct errors, and increased resilience and health.
So what is self-compassion and how do we do it?
Dr. Neff describes self-compassion as “the ability to hold pain with love” and notes that it has three main components: mindfulness, common humanity and kindness.
We must cultivate awareness of our suffering in order to address it. “We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time” (www.self-compassion.org). When we practice mindfulness, we are practicing an open, non-judgmental state from which we can observe our thoughts and sensations, so that we then have the opportunity to respond to them, rather than react without awareness.
Suffering, mistakes and inadequacy are part of the human experience. There is no escaping the fact that if you are living a human life, you will mess up, hurt people, fail and disappoint. Common humanity reminds us that we are all human and therefore we all experience limitations and the resultant suffering. So, while our minds trick us into believing we are uniquely worse off than the rest, common humanity reminds us that in fact we are never alone nor unique in our suffering and personal inadequacy.
Self-compassion requires that we treat ourselves with warmth, curiosity and understanding. Many of us default to self-flagellation and criticism when something goes wrong, rather than treating ourselves with the gentleness and kindness we might offer someone else. Life is full of challenges and it most often doesn’t go exactly as we want and hope; when we accept this with kindness, rather than deny it with self-criticism, we experience greater emotional wellbeing and freedom.
So how can this help you improve your performance?
The answer is fairly simple: when your internal threat system is activated, it makes it harder to learn, take risks and stay motivated. When you are calm and at ease, you have greater capacity to grow, learn from mistakes, stay motivated and complete tasks.
When we criticize ourselves, our negative thoughts activate the body’s threat system, which turns on a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala’s goal is to keep us safe by quickly motivating us to fight the threat (fight), run away from it (flight) or play dead and hope it will pass us by (freeze).
When it is our own thoughts that turn on the threat system, we use the same strategies: we fight by beating ourselves up emotionally, flee by becoming anxious, numbing out or wanting to run away or freeze by getting stuck in rumination and accepting the harsh judgments we say to ourselves (Kristin Neff, Why We Need to Have Compassion for Our Inner Critic).
With self-criticism, the impact is compounded, because “we are both the attacker and the attacked” (Kristin Neff, Why We Need to Have Compassion for Our Inner Critic). In this activated state, our resources go toward warding off the threat through the strategies mentioned above and learning, motivation, mood and performance capacity all go down markedly. In fact, when the amygdala fires up a threat response, the parts of the brain used for learning and executive functioning actually fire down. So it isn’t your fault you can’t form coherent thoughts when you are emotionally activated; your brain actually isn’t functioning in a way that would make clear thinking possible.
In Hamilton and Fremou’s 1985 study on the effects of cognitive behavioral training on basketball free throw performance, they discovered that when players with low free throw performance in games cultivated positive self-statements instead of negative self-evaluation, they improved their shooting by 50 percent. This makes sense – we perform better when we aren’t freaking out and feeling down on ourselves.
Self-compassion not only helps you succeed through improved motivation and learning, but it also helps you deal with failure.
Bryan Robinson writes in his Forbes’ article, Self-Compassion Is An Essential Tool to Excel In Your Career, Expert Says, “if you go into shame mode after failure, it disallows you to look at and learn from your failures.” With self-compassion, you are better able to confront your weaknesses and make positive changes, rather than becoming defensive or hopeless.
If failures are taken in stride as part of the human experience, not an indication of your unique inadequacy, you are more likely to take risks and learn from your mistakes. Whatever the consequences of a perceived failure, you know that you have your own back, which means that you have resilience.
Self-compassion will also make you feel happier, improve your relationships and will make you less likely to report a range of different physical ailments.
Kristin Neff says in her interview on Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier that people who are more self-compassionate are more likely to apologize, are more giving and are less self-focused. And not only that, but they are less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A recent study (Brief Report: Self-compassion, physical health and the mediating role of health-promoting behaviours, Sara Dunne, David Sheffield, Joseph Chilcot), found that self-compassion was negatively associated with physical symptom scores. Being kind to yourself can actually help improve your physical health. Self-compassion downregulates the threat system, which means less stress in the body and therefore less of all the ailments that stress exacerbates.
We have established that self-compassion is both helpful and effective.
It isn’t some woo woo affirmation protocol, but rather a way of approaching yourself and your shortcomings that helps you be calm, resilient and remain connected to yourself and others through life’s challenges.
But how do you do it?
Admittedly, it can feel awkward and challenging at first to shift away from the familiar critical stories – they’ve gotten you this far, right? You have spent a lifetime running those narratives through your mind, which means those neural pathways are strong. Even if they are painful or inhibit your growth, they feel familiar and the neurons like to fire through familiar pathways.
So yes, beginning a self-compassion practice will take just that: practice. You are actually forging new neural pathways in your brain when you shift the self-talk and that takes some time.
You might notice some negative thoughts about self-compassion have come up, like that it is letting yourself off the hook, selfish or will make you lazy or lose your competitive edge. The research proves that none of these myths are true.
Self-compassion is often the antidote to our own mental limitations.
People who use self-compassion are less likely to ruminate on how bad things are and better able to cope with and move on from tough situations. They tend to be better at compromising in conflicts and take personal responsibility for their actions. Research shows they even engage in healthier behaviors like exercising, eating well, drinking less and going to the doctor more regularly. (The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, Kristen Neff and Christopher Germer)
If you are ready to give this mindset shift a try, keep reading and try out the practice below:
Self-Compassion Journal Practice:
Try writing a self-compassion journal every day for one week (longer if you like). Journaling is a great way to safely explore and express emotions and has been shown to improve well-being.
At some point in the evening, review your day. Write down anything that you judged yourself for, felt bad about, was challenging or caused you pain. (For example, you snapped at your partner this morning. Afterwards, you felt embarrassed and ashamed that you hadn’t been more patient) Then try applying mindfulness, a sense of common humanity and kindness to relate to the event in a more self-compassionate way.
- Mindfulness: This mostly involves bringing awareness to your experience. Write about how you felt. Do your best to be accepting and non-judgmental without diminishing it or becoming overly dramatic. (For example, I was frustrated because I felt like I had already talked to him about this. I overreacted and felt silly afterwards.)
- Common humanity: Write down the ways that your experience was part of being human. This might include acknowledging that being human means being imperfect and all people have these sorts of human experiences. (“Everyone overreacts sometimes – it’s only human.” “It makes sense I was feeling frustrated.”) You might also want to think about the unique causes and conditions of your specific situation. (“My frustration was exacerbated by the fact that I was running late and didn’t sleep well last night. If the circumstances had been different, I might have reacted differently.”)
- Self Kindness: Write yourself some kind, understanding words. Imagine what you might say to a friend in a similar circumstance. Let yourself know that you care about your own happiness, well-being and peace by using a gentle and reassuring tone with kind words. (“It’s okay. You messed up, but it isn’t the end of the world. I understand that you were feeling fried and snapped. Try apologizing to him later and practicing more patience this week.”)
After keeping the journal for a week, notice if you have had any changes to your internal dialogue. How did it feel to write to yourself more compassionately? Did it help you cope with challenges that arose? Were there parts of it that you didn’t enjoy?
For some people, journaling is an effective way to support self-compassion and for others it doesn’t work. If you don’t like it, skip the writing part. The important part is starting to practice the three steps of self-compassion – mindfully turning towards pain, remembering that imperfection is a part of the human experience and being kind and supportive towards yourself when things are difficult.
(Journal Practice from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer)
If a formal practice, like the journaling exercise, feels like too much, try to practice the three components of self-compassion (mindfulness, common humanity and kindness) throughout your days.
For the next week, when you notice something challenging arise, name it as challenging, recognize that it is likely part of the normal human experience and say something kind to yourself in response.
Remember as a general rule to treat yourself like you would a good friend or someone you love. Use the same level of patience and kindness with yourself that you would with someone you deeply care about. You deserve to have your own back and it will improve your performance in almost every area of your life, relationships, work, fitness and your creative endeavors.
If you’d like to explore self-compassion further, I highly recommend The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength and thrive by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. It is chalk full of important information about what self-compassion is and how it works, as well as includes practical practices to help you develop a new way of thinking to create a thriving life.
Did you enjoy this article? Check out 6 Pillars of Health to Transform your Wellbeing from the Inside Out for more tips on how to live better.