Why High Achievers Choose Self-Compassion Over Self-Criticism
A while ago, I wrote an article on the benefits of self-compassion, in which I listed some of the differences between self-compassion and self-criticism.
In short, self-criticism is associated with lots of negative consequences – it’s strongly related to depression and dissatisfaction with life, self-critics are much more likely to attempt suicide than others, and so on –, while self-compassion is associated with many positive consequences – more happiness, optimism and other positive mind-states, less negative emotions such as fear and isolation, better relationships, greater emotional resiliency, and so on.
In almost every aspect of life, self-compassion trumps self-criticism.
And still, many people seem hesitant to try a more compassionate approach. Why? According to Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in this field and author of the very book called Self-Compassion, it’s because people fear that they will be too easy on themselves. They fear they they’ll become lazy, weak, and self-indulgent. ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child,’ goes the saying, revealing the belief that only harsh criticism and punishment can keep indolence at bay.
But is that true? Do we need self-criticism to get motivated, take action, and move towards the accomplishment of our goals? Or is self-compassion yet again the better solution? We shall find out in today’s article…
Why the Whip May not Be as Motivating as You Think
My language in the intro or the title of this article may have given away the answer to the question, “Is self-criticism really the great motivator it’s cracked up to be?”
In my opinion, it’s clearly not.
First of all, self-critics are much more likely to be depressed and anxious than their self-compassionate peers – not exactly a mindset that supports high performance.
Self-criticism undermines so-called self-efficacy beliefs (confidence in our own abilities), which have been shown to have a dramatic impact on our ability to reach our goals. Kristin Neff explains in her book Self-Compassion:
“Dozens of studies have confirmed that our beliefs in our own abilities – which research psychologist Albert Bandura terms ‘self-efficacy beliefs’ – are directly related to our ability to achieve our dreams. For example, one study followed more than two hundred high school wrestlers through the course of one wrestling season. It was found that, independent of their prior success at wrestling, those students who had stronger self-efficacy beliefs won more matches than those who doubted themselves…
Because self-criticism tends to undermine self-efficacy beliefs, self-criticism may harm rather than help our ability to do our best.”
It’s like David J. Schwartz says, “Believe you can succeed and you will.” If you constantly beat yourself up and put yourself down, you’ll lose that belief. You’ll lose faith in yourself, meaning you aren’t able to go as far as you’re capable of.
If self-criticism works at all, it’s because of the fear it engenders in us. Because it’s so unpleasant to be harshly criticized when we fail, we become motivated by the desire to escape our own judgment. In theory, this fear should prevent us from being complacent. However, that’s not how it works.
Instead, the fear and its accompanying pressure undermine our performance, making us unnecessarily nervous, distracting us from the task at hand, and interfering with our ability to focus and do our best. (The notion that we perform better under pressure is a myth.)
Furthermore, fear of failure leads to a completely different issue called ‘self-handicapping’ – the tendency to undermine your performance in ways that create a plausible excuse for failing. You unconsciously sabotage yourself so that if you do fail, you can avoid feeling unworthy by blaming failure on not having tried hard enough, not having enough time, or whatever. The most common form of self-handicapping is simply not trying. If you don’t study for a test, you can blame getting a bad grade on your lack of trying rather than on being dumb. (Btw, I used to engage in this kind of behavior all the time throughout my high school years!)
As you might guess, self-handicapping is not exactly a performance booster. In fact, it’s one of the reasons why self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals. Kristin Neff explains in Self-Compassion:
“Research indicates that self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals because of these sorts of self-handicapping strategies. In one study, for instance, college students were asked to describe their various academic, social, and health-related goals, and then to report on how much progress they had made toward these goals. Self-critics made significantly less progress toward their goals than others and also reported that they procrastinated more often. So, instead of being a useful motivational tool, self-criticism may actually cause us to short ourselves in the foot.”
And we’re not even done yet. Because self-critics are so afraid of the self-punishment that will ensue if they admit their weaknesses and shortcomings, they have a hard time seeing themselves clearly and identifying areas of improvement.
Instead of admitting the truth and working on their flaws, self-critics blame other people and put themselves in a victim role. Kristin Neff explains some of the dynamics in Self-Compassion:
“Research indicates that people who suffer from shame and self-judgment are more likely to blame others for their more failures. Who wants to admit their inadequacies when it means facing the attack dogs of self-criticism? It’s easier to sweep things under the rug or point your finger at someone else.”
It’s like they say, the first step to betterment is admitting you have a problem. Self-criticism keeps people from doing that, thus keeping them from getting better.
Summing up, self-criticism clearly does not create an environment that fosters peak performance. It lowers our all-important self-efficacy beliefs, infuses us with negative emotions of anxiety and depression, and leads to fear of failure, further paralyzing us, distracting us from the task at hand, and interfering with our ability to focus and do our best. This fear of failure also leads to self-handicapping, a form of self-sabotage intended to save our ego in case of failure. And lastly, self-criticism keeps us from improving on our weaknesses because we’re too afraid to admit them in the first place
So, what about self-compassion? Does it work better?
What About Self-Compassion?
Merriam Webster defines compassion as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it’.
In other words, compassion is awareness of other people’s suffering combined with a desire to alleviate it.
Self-compassion, then, is concerned with recognizing and alleviating our own suffering. When we feel compassion for our pain, we want to heal it. We want to make improvements that help us suffer less. We’re motivated not by fear of self-punishment, but by the desire to be healthy and well.
Kristin Neff puts it perfectly in Self-Compassion:
“Unlike self-criticism, which asks if you’re good enough, self-compassion asks what’s good for you? Self-compassion taps into your inner desire to be healthy and happy. If you care about yourself, you’ll do what you need to do to do in order to learn and grow. You’ll want to change unhelpful patterns of behavior…”
Self-compassion’s driving force is love not fear. And so, because you love and value yourself, you’re more likely to make choices that lead to well-being in the long term.
It’s like Osho, one of my favorite spiritual teachers, used to say, “If you don’t love your house you will not clean it; if you don’t love your house you will not paint it; if you don’t love it, you will not surround it with a beautiful garden, with a lotus pond. If you love yourself you will create a garden around yourself. You will try to grow your potential, you will try to bring out all that is in you to be expressed. If you love, you will go on showering yourself, you will go on nourishing yourself.”
Not only does self-compassion help us act in ways conducive to our well-being, but it simultaneously creates the perfect circumstances to make that happen. It recognizes that failure is inevitable, not a cause of concern, but a powerful teacher. Self-compassion allows us to see our weaknesses in a save and nurturing way, thus paving the way for improvement. We can work on getting better, not out of fear but out of a desire to be healthy, happy, and thriving.
This is not just warm, fuzzy, feel-good talk. There’s rock solid science that attests to the motivating and performance-boosting powers of self-compassion.
For starters, self-compassionate people are more oriented toward personal growth and more likely to formulate specific plans for reaching their goals. They are also just as likely as others to set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals. Kristin Neff explains in Self-Compassion:
“We found that self-compassionate people were just as likely to have high standards for themselves as those who lacked self-compassion, but they were much less likely to be hard on themselves on the occasions when they didn’t meet those standards. We’ve also found that self-compassionate people are more oriented toward personal growth than those who continually criticize themselves.”
The fact that self-compassionate people don’t beat themselves up after failing to reach a goal is crucial. Why? Because it preserves their self-efficacy beliefs and makes them more likely to set new goals for themselves instead of wallowing in feelings of self-pity, frustration, and disappointment. Kristin Neff explains:
“Research indicates that failure is less likely to damage the overall self-efficacy beliefs of self-compassionate people. Because they aren’t so hard on themselves when they fall down, they retain enough confidence in their abilities to pick themselves up and try again. In fact, a recent study found that when self-compassionate people are forced to give up on a goal that’s important to them – an inevitability at some point in life – they tend to refocus their energy on a new and different goal. Self-critics, on the other hand, are more likely to throw in the towel.”
Self-compassionate people also have more intrinsic motivation than their self-criticizing peers, meaning they do things because they want to learn and grow, not to validate themselves or impress others. If you’ve read my article on intrinsic versus extrinsic goals, then you know what a difference this can make.
Intrinsically motivated people pursue so-called learning goals. They are driven by curiosity and a desire to develop new skills. They want to achieve in order to gain knowledge and get better, while viewing failure as part of the learning process. The counterpart to learning goals are performance goals, which stem from an extrinsic desire to defend or enhance self-esteem. People with these goals want to do well so that others approve of and appreciate them. It’s all about external validation, which means failure must be avoided at all costs.
As you might expect, learning goals are far more effective in the long run than performance goals. And guess what? Self-compassionate people are more likely to pursue learning goals than self-critics. Kristin Neff explains in Self-Compassion:
“Research shows that in the long-run, learning goals are more effective than performance goals. Learning goals propel people to try harder for longer, because they enjoy what they do. they also enable people to ask for the help and guidance they need, because they’re less worried about looking incompetent for not already knowing the right answer…
… our research finds that self-compassionate people are more likely to have learning rather than performance goals. because their motivation stems from the desire to learn and grow, rather than from the desire to escape self-criticism, they are more willing to take learning risks. This is largely because they’re not so afraid of failure.”
Because self-compassionate people tend to pursue learning goals and are fine with committing mistakes, they are less likely to suffer from fear of failure, resulting in less self-handicapping, e.g. procrastination. Kristin Neff explains in Self-Compassion:
“Self-compassionate people have also been found to procrastinate less than those lacking self-compassion. This is partly because they report being less worried about how others view their performances, and thus don’t require a plausible excuse for failing.”
But wait, there’s more. Research also shows that self-compassionate people engage in healthier behaviors like sticking to an exercise regimen, weight-loss goals, or quitting smoking.
When self-compassionate people fall off their diet, for example, they simply forgive themselves for their lapses. They realize they’re only human and that failing from time to time is natural – it happens to all of us. They don’t make a big deal out of it and simply keep going. Self-critics, on the other hand, tend to get all worked up after failures, no matter how small. They beat themselves up for it, feel bad about themselves, probably engage in some self-comforting, unhealthy behavior, and ultimately throw in the towel.
There has been research backing this up. Kristin Neff talks about it in Self-Compassion:
“Researchers found that among women who were on a diet, those in the control group reported feeling more guilty and ashamed after eating the doughnut. And later on, when they were given the opportunity to eat as much candy as they wanted as part of a supposed ‘taste-testing’ session, they actually ate more candy than those who weren’t on a diet. In contrast, dieting women who were encouraged to be self-compassionate about the doughnut were much less distraught. They also didn’t overeat in the taste-testing session afterward, meaning that they were better able to stick to their weight-loss goals despite momentarily falling off the wagon.”
Last but not least, self-compassionate people are more likely to acknowledge areas of needed improvement, admit mistakes, and take responsibility for past behavior, enabling them to learn and grow in areas of weakness. Kristin Neff explains in Self-Compassion:
“Not only does self-compassion provide a powerful motivational engine for change, it also provides the clarity needed to know what needs changing in the first place.
A recent research study also supports the notion that self-compassion makes it easier to admit to needed areas of improvement… The group who were encouraged to have self-compassion had fewer negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, or sadness when writing about what happened than those in the other group. At the same time, they also took more personal responsibility for the event.
Self-compassion provides the emotional safety needed to take responsibility for our actions, consider their impact on others, and sincerely apologize for our behavior.”
Holy shit, those were a lot of positives points to cover. Are you beginning to understand just how much more effective self-compassion is than self-criticism?
Summing up, self-compassionate people are more oriented toward growth and more likely to get real about their goals by creating specific plans to achieve them. Their self-compassionate attitude helps them preserve their self-efficacy beliefs, allowing them to quickly set sails on new ventures after failure. They also have more intrinsic motivation and pursue learning rather than performance goals, meaning they’re driven by the healthy desire to learn and grow, rather than an unhealthy desire to escape self-punishment or get external validation. Because they are not terribly afraid of failure, they engage in less self-handicapping behavior (e.g. procrastination).
Furthermore, because they don’t beat themselves up after falling off the wagon, they are more likely to stick to health-related behaviors such as exercise, weight-loss goals, or quitting smoking. Last but not least, self-compassionate people are able to acknowledge areas of needed improvement, admit mistakes, and take responsibility for past actions, enabling them to learn and grow.
Very impressive, I know. So how do you actually practice self-compassion?
How Does Self-Compassion Work Anyway? And How Do You Get Good at It?
Hopefully, you’re sold on the idea that self-compassion is not just a warm and fuzzy alternative to self-criticism, but also a powerful tool on the path to achievement. The questions that now arise are, “How do we do self-compassion anyway?” “How do we become more self-compassionate?”
In general, you get a chance to be self-compassionate every time you experience some negative feelings. Maybe you missed a workout, lost a game, or forgot to do your homework. Whatever it is, when you’re feeling a bit negative – and especially when you’re criticizing yourself for it! – you can respond self-compassionately to it.
For starters, realize it’s okay to feel this way sometimes. Other people experience sadness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions all the time as well. That’s natural. That’s what it means to be a human being. There will always be hardships, difficulties, rough times, and negative emotions. And that’s okay. Sooner or later the negativity will pass away, just like clouds in the sky. Simply observe those negative and self-critical thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental and compassionate way.
You can even actively comfort yourself, just like you would with a good friend. Try talking to yourself in a kind, understanding, and compassionate way. Maybe even give yourself a little hug, gently stroke your arms, and lay your hands on your heart. That, by the way, is probably the best explanation I can give you: Simply imagine what you would do if a good friend felt the way you feel right now. What would you tell him? How would you comfort and console his or her hardship?
Every time you criticize yourself or just feel a little negative, catch yourself, realize what’s happening and then respond in a more self-compassionate way instead of beating yourself up. That’s the #1 strategy to become more self-compassionate. Catching yourself in a moment of failure, sorrow, suffering, and then choosing a more compassionate response.here
What are some other ways to become more self-compassionate?
First of all, be sure to check out Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion (you can find my summary here). It’s a very, very good book! In addition to that, Kristin Neff also has a bunch of exercises and guided meditations made specifically to help people become more self-compassionate. You can check those out here.
Let’s say your teenage daughter comes home with a failing exam grade. What is the best way to encourage her to study harder and do better next time? Should you harshly criticize her (“You’re such a loser! How dumb and stupid are you! You’ll never amount to anything unless you get your act together!”) or try a more compassionate approach (“It’s okay to feel disappointed, that’s natural. I would feel that way, too. Something just didn’t work out this time. We’ll have a look at it together and work out how to do better next time.”)?
Intuitively, most of us know how to reassure and motivate our loved ones – we let them know that we believe in them, that we understand them, and that they have our support, making them feel calm, safe, confident and creating a mind-state conducive to working hard and reaching one’s potential.
For whatever reason, we tend to take the exact opposite approach with ourselves, setting ourselves up for failure and negativity. We’ve clearly seen that self-criticism does not create an environment that fosters high performance. It destroys self-efficacy beliefs, creates paralyzing fear of failure, leads to self-handicapping, and keeps us from improving our weaknesses.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, creates the perfect environment for reaching our highest potential. It helps people move toward and get serious about growth out of a healthy desire to be happy and reduce suffering. Self-compassionate people tend to have higher self-efficacy beliefs and more intrinsic motivation, helping them to pursue learning goals and bounce back from failure. Self-compassionate people aren’t paralyzed by fear of failure and engage in less self-sabotaging behaviors (e.g. procrastination). Last but not least, they are more likely to stick to health-related behaviors and have no problems admitting to and working on areas of needed improvement.
Far from leading us into ways of self-indulgence and laziness, self-compassion proves a fertile soil for motivation, courage, and achievement.
Kristin Neff sums up the relationship between self-compassion and high performance perfectly in her book:
“So it’s definitely not the case that self-compassion leads to complacency and inertia. Quite the opposite. By losing our fear of failure, we become free to challenge ourselves to a far greater degree than would otherwise be possible. At the same time, acknowledging the limitations of being human, we are better able to recognize which goals are working for us and which are not, and when it’s time to take a new approach. Far from being a form of self-indulgence, self-compassion and real achievement go hand in hand. Self-compassion inspires us to pursue our dreams and creates the brave, confident, curious, and resilient mind-set that allows us to actually achieve them.”
If you want to lower your chances of success and feel terrible along the way, go down the road of self-criticism.
If you want to achieve things in life and feel good about yourself along the way, embark on the path of self-compassion.
Thanks for Reading
If you enjoyed this, consider signing up for our newsletter to get the latest articles and other valuable resources for free.
Such a powerful post Nils. What a great service you’ve just done for the world. Self-criticism is useless, I believe. It has no positive benefits. If you watch someone criticizing another, doesn’t it make you wince or shudder. It’s horrible to watch. Criticizing ourselves is just the same. Belittling ourselves makes us that bit smaller each time – smaller on self-belief and courage to try again. Self-compassion rules all the way.
Hey Laura, thanks so much for the kind words. I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying. Keep it up! 🙂