It is not just at the beginning of a new year that people promise themselves to do better. I rarely make New Year’s resolutions. But there are always times during the year when I think about something I just said or did, or didn’t do, and say to myself, “Self, you have got to do better.”
My natural inclination is to berate myself. I’ll give you a trivial example. Sometimes I carelessly do something that costs me money. At the supermarket, for instance, I pick up a yogurt that I know is on sale. But when it gets rung up, I don’t get the discount. Oh, it only applied to certain flavors; I forgot about that and picked up one that didn’t qualify. When I do something like that, I tell myself that I have just paid “the stupid tax.” That’s the tax I levy on myself by being stupid.
At some level, I do seem to think that if I remind myself often enough about how stupid I am, I will stop being so stupid.
A whole different approach to motivating yourself to do better comes from those who believe in the power of self-esteem. They might suggest that I come up with way to boost my own self-esteem, instead of chastising myself. Maybe something like, “Well, self, you have a Ph.D.! How stupid can you be? Maybe you’re really smart.”
Kristin Neff, Ph.D., does not think either of these approaches is likely to be particularly effective — and she has scientific evidence on her side. Our motivational superpower, she believes, is self-compassion.
What Is Self-Compassion?
In an article in which Neff explained the power of the compassionate frame of mind, she defined self-compassion as comprised of three components:
- Self-kindness: “the tendency to being caring, understanding and supportive toward ourselves when we fail or make mistakes rather than being harshly critical or judgmental.”
- Common humanity: “recognizing that all humans are imperfect, and connecting our own flawed condition to the shared human condition so we can have greater perspective on our shortcomings.”
- Mindfulness: “being aware of the pain associated with failure in a clear and balanced manner so that we neither ignore nor obsess about our faults.”
What Should You Say to Yourself if You Want to Be Self-Compassionate?
There is no one set of magical self-compassionate words. Self-compassion is more of a mindset. A great model for it is the compassionate and understanding friend. If you have said or done something you feel badly about — maybe you betrayed someone or took credit you didn’t deserve — think about what a kind, caring and compassionate friend might say to you about that, then say it to yourself.
Two psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley, Juliana Breines and Serena Chen, did a study to test this piece of advice. All the participants were prompted to think about something they did recently that they feel guilty about. One-third of them, randomly assigned, were instructed to write to themselves from the perspective of an understanding and compassionate friend. Another group was instructed to write about all their positive qualities; that should work if boosting your self-esteem is a good strategy. The final group of people were put in a good mood by writing about hobbies that they enjoy.
The results were clear. The people who wrote to themselves the way a compassionate friend would, were more motivated than the people in the other two groups to apologize for what they did wrong. They were also more committed to doing better in the future.
An Example of a Compassionate Message that Worked Better Than a Boost to Self-Esteem
The same Berkeley psychologists did another study in which the participants took a very difficult vocabulary test. They all did poorly. Breines and Chen believed that the students would be more likely to persist at studying for a second vocabulary test if they were given compassionate feedback rather than a boost to their self-esteem.
The compassionate feedback, received by one-third of the students, was this:
“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.”
Another group of students got this boost to their self-esteem:
“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, try not to feel bad about yourself – you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley!”
A third group received no special feedback.
The students who were given feedback fostering self-compassion did better than those given a self-esteem boost or no additional feedback. They spent more time studying for the next vocabulary test. And, those who spent more time studying did better on the test.
The Motivational Psychology of People Who Are Self-Compassionate
People who are compassionate to themselves are not just letting themselves off easy. They set performance standards that are just as high as people who keep telling themselves how stupid they are or who are harshly judgmental about themselves in other ways. But failure doesn’t destroy them. Self-compassionate people fear failure less. When they do fail, they don’t get as upset. They don’t procrastinate as much. They just try again.
The secret to keeping promises to yourself isn’t about finding ways to be successful all the time. No one manages to do that. It is about knowing how to fail. When we fail, we need to treat ourselves compassionately, just as a good friend would. That can make a world of difference.