Self-compassion: The best medicine

Won’t “being your own worst critic” toughen you up and ultimately make you perform better?
No, says Leah Weiss, PhD, a researcher, trainer, consultant and author.


Dr. Weiss, who teaches courses on compassionate leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and is principal teacher and trainer for Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program (founded by the Dalai Lama), explains that self-compassion is necessary for success and mental well-being, whereas self-criticism can result in anxiety and stress that lead to procrastination and reduced productivity.

Isn’t self-criticism necessary for productivity?

Despite what is often taught, self-criticism is not  necessary — and, in fact, is detrimental to productivity. Self-criticism causes you to procrastinate and hide from your mistakes rather than correct them. It also harms your relationships with colleagues rather than improving them. Contrary to what we have been educated and brought up to believe, self-hate — manifested as an inability to tolerate failure — actually impedes success and hinders you from the motivation to do better.

Conversely, self-compassion fosters reduced procrastination and a greater ability to accept and learn from failure and critical feedback.

But if we are kind to ourselves, won’t we become self-indulgent?

Many people have internalized the idea that excellence results from self-flagellation, and it may seem counterintuitive to them that being compassionate to oneself actually enhances the ability to stick with behavioral change goals. In actuality, self-compassion makes you suppler because you gain the flexibility to see problems, receive negative feedback from others, and change habits that no longer serve you. Cumulatively, all of these skills that are supported by self-compassion become assets that make you more successful at forming healthy behaviors, learning and growing.

Stepping back, can you define self-compassion? Is it different from self-esteem?

Simply put, self-esteem is an overall evaluation of yourself. In any given moment, if I believe that I am a good person and am performing well, I will have high self-esteem. If I feel I’ve fallen short compared to what I could do or what others around me are doing, I will experience low self-esteem. We move through our days vacillating in response to how we are judging ourselves and how we are stacking up against others.

Conversely, self-compassion is the capacity to be kind to yourself, especially when you are struggling:

  • Self-compassion is predicated on the ability to be aware of what you are feeling, aka mindfulness — of your own suffering, recognizing your own physical pain, difficulties, negative (and often self-critical) thoughts and disappointments.
  • Self-compassion also involves recognizing, while you are experiencing a challenge, that you are not uniquely bad nor alone in it; you are cognizant of a common humanity. Self-compassion involves remembering that we all experience pain, we all blow it from time to time, we are all “works in progress.”
  • When you are self-compassionate, you treat yourself with friendliness rather than piling on self-deprecation.

Why is it important to distinguish between self-esteem and self-compassion?

Self-esteem ultimately undercuts our capacity for resilience because it is an unreliable and unsustainable approach to mental well-being.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows for mental well-being, better metabolizing of stress, lower anxiety, decreased depression, and diminished dysfunctional perfectionism. Self-compassion stimulates happiness, greater motivation, greater initiative, healthier lifestyle choices and better interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, self-compassion bolsters you to be less critical of your mistakes and buffers you from the rollercoaster ride of a self-esteem mindset.

Why is perfectionism a quality worth avoiding?

The combination of exceedingly high standards and a preoccupation with extreme self-critical evaluation is what defines excessive perfectionism.

Perfectionism is associated with anxiety and worse performance, not only in work and in any educational context, but also in sports. Perfectionism cripples our ability to do our work and ultimately leads to burnout: we can’t get something done, let alone started, because our standards are too high.

What simple thing can we do today to become more self-compassionate?

Think how you would respond to a friend or respected coworker that needs support. Try that response on — with yourself. Recognize that someone, right now, needs and deserves compassion. That someone is you.

Julie Croteau
September 2017