People who have greater levels of self-compassion tend to be more motivated, less lazy, and more successful over time. But just as important, they like themselves, even when they fall short. Psychologist Susan David explains how you can cultivate this quality.
One of the great myths of self-compassion is that it’s about lying to yourself. Or, that it’s about being weak or being lazy. Another myth is that it’s about pushing aside your difficult thoughts and saying, “Now I’m going to tell myself five positive things.”
That’s not self-compassion. When you are self-compassionate, you’re actually doing something very specific for yourself — you’re noticing difficult thoughts, showing up for them, and creating a sense of psychological safety for yourself.
You’re creating a space in which you feel able to take risks. If you beat yourself up whenever you fail or fall short, this naturally inhibits you from trying new things and taking chances. But when you’re self-compassionate, you know that even if you fail, you’ll still like yourself. In this way, self-compassion gives you the ability to experiment and explore, and to be courageous.
In research studies, people who have greater levels of self-compassion tend to be more motivated, less lazy, and more successful over time. They still recognize where they’ve gone wrong, but rather than getting caught up in blame and judgement, they can learn from the experience and adapt and change course for the next time.
So how can you cultivate self-compassion? Start by ending the tug-of-war inside yourself. In a research study that looked at more than 70,000 people, I found about one-third of the participants judged their normal experiences and emotions as being “good” or “bad”, “positive” or “negative”. When you evaluate your life in such a black-and-white way, you’re entering into an internal tug-of-war — you criticize yourself whenever you feel “bad” or “negative” emotions and whenever you don’t feel “good” or “positive” emotions.
To stop the tug-of-war, simply drop the rope. When we experience a challenging emotion like sadness or disappointment, many of us respond by telling ourselves: “This is bad; I shouldn’t be feeling this. Why can’t I be more positive?!?” And then we follow up this judgement with more judgement — we berate ourselves for not being self-compassionate. Next time that happens, try saying to yourself, “I’m feeling sad. What is this sadness a signpost of? What is it pointing to that’s important to me? What is it teaching me?”
Think of your difficult emotions and thoughts as data. They can provide you with valuable information about who you are and what really matters. Self-compassion allows you to acknowledge and accept all of your feelings, even when they’re negative. For instance, you might notice that you’re feeling really frustrated at work. So ask yourself: “What is that frustration a signpost of? What is it telling me about what’s important to me?”
For one person, frustration might be a signpost that their voice isn’t being heard. For another person, that frustration might be a signpost that they’re not growing in their job. By asking questions about your uncomfortable emotions, you’re gaining a greater level of perspective about yourself and engaging your curiosity about who you are as a human being.
When you can get curious about your experiences, you’re 50 percent of the way to being self-compassionate. Because at that moment, you’re not judging yourself and your emotions. Instead, you’re looking at them and learning from them. You can also use this process to figure out the wisest action to take. Follow up your observations by asking yourself: “What could I do in this situation that would best serve me, my values and my goals?”
If you find yourself having trouble being self-compassionate, don’t beat yourself up. When you’re having a lack-of-self-compassion day, it’s really important to not criticize yourself. One thing that can help is to look at yourself from a different angle. We’ve all got a child version of ourselves who lives inside us.
Imagine if a child came to you and said, “No one wants to be with me” or “I’m feeling sad” or “I tried to do well in this project but I wasn’t successful,” would you punish them? Of course not. You’d put your arms around them, you’d love them, you’d listen to them, and you’d see them. Sometimes, as an adult when we lack self-compassion, it can help to connect with the child in you and find out what they need. So when you’re struggling to access self-compassion, ask: “I notice that I’m feeling X emotion. What is it that the child in me needs right now?”
Ultimately, self compassion is about recognizing what it means to be human. Discomfort, stress, disappointment, loss and pain are all part of the human journey. If we are not able to enter into a space of kindness to ourselves, we’re putting ourselves at odds with the reality of life. Another hallmark of humanity is imperfection: To be human is to be imperfect and to make mistakes. Self-compassion is a necessary part of our journey; it’s about recognizing that you are doing the best you can — with who you are, with what you’ve got, and with the resources that you’ve been given.
Susan David is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, cofounder and codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, and CEO of Evidence Based Psychology, a business consultancy.