Why Self-Compassion Is Your Most Valuable Skill for a Successful Life

Woman crying with tears on her face

“You have been critising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”  
– Louise Hay

As a practicing psychologist, I keep being amazed (and sometimes downright bewildered) by how universally we excel at being our own worst critics. From a very young age, we are taught to be kind to others—show respect, kindness, and dignity to everyone around us. But when it comes to ourselves? Oh, no! That’s where we crack out the inner critic whip and start swinging.
Most of us, at our lowest points, decide that the best course of action is to push ourselves even harder, throw a few more stabs for good measure, and completely ignore our feelings just when we need a little encouragement the most. It is almost like we have been brainwashed into believing that true success requires this relentless self-discipline and mental toughness. We think that if we are not beating ourselves up over every little shortcoming, we are not trying hard enough.
In fact, we get so good at this that at some point, being our own personal drill sergeant starts to feel like a personal strength and noble virtue; taking some perversive pride in it – “Look at me, cracking the whip on myself! I’m such a high achiever!”
But here is the dark truth: research has shown that this self-criticism and flagellation is pretty much a fast track to increased anxiety, burnout, depression, loneliness, meaninglessness, procrastination, wrecked relationships, and chronic dissatisfaction with life. 
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for having high standards (not the unrealistic kind that makes you break out in hives) and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps (hey, a little resilience never hurt anyone). But there is a fine line between giving yourself a little push versus outright punishment. How do you tell the difference? So glad you asked! The magic word here is: Self-compassion.
Before you roll your eyes and click away, just bear with me for a second.
At its core, self-compassion means treating yourself with warmth and understanding in challenging times by acknowledging that hardships and difficult experiences form part of the human experience. It centres you to the present moment, allowing you to experience all the difficult emotions associated with that moment.
A substantial body of literature https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9482966/) now evidence for the significant benefits that accompany self-compassion including improved emotional resilience, optimism, increased positive affect, goal achievement, relationship satisfaction, increased motivation and productivity, career success, as well as improved physical health and mental wellbeing. 
Unfortunately, despite all of the positive outcomes associated with self-compassion, most people still think of self-compassion as being something “fluffy” and “airy-fairy”. So often in practice patients will mentally, or even physically, roll their eyes when I mention self-compassion. There is this inherent belief that if you were to show yourself more compassion you will lose all motivation, drive, and ambition, and that you will end up being a sloth on a couch. However, this could not be further from the truth! Trust me, I know… I’ve been in the “oh, this is too fluffy” camp. 
Years ago I used to have the same mental block towards self-compassion. The phrase did not resonate with me. I only knew how to achieve my goals by relying on my relentless, unforgiving, disciplined pursuits. It was only once I decided to actually give self-compassion a try that things really started to shift in a meaningful direction for me. Regrettably, I only embarked on this self-compassion journey because it was my last resort. By that point, I have tried all of the stock-standard, proclaimed successful methods i.e., start meditating, do breathwork, set strategic goals, incorporate healthy micro (i.e., atomic) habits, yada, yada, yada. I also tried what I thought was self-compassion – be kind to yourself, take time off, schedule social time, say “no”, and you know the drill. But nothing actually made me FEEL and FUNCTION better. 
This all changed when I tried the science-backed approach to self-compassion, pioneered by Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. This method, outlined in her ground-breaking research, has been nothing short of life-changing for me. Now I cannot advocate for it enough! It has fuelled me to help others achieve self-compassion before they hit rock bottom. Before they negatively impact their own physical and mental health, annihilate their own career goals, sabotage long-term relationships, or worse, get to a point where they want to give up on life. To better understand and measure self-compassion, Kristin Neff also developed the Self-Compassion Scale, an invaluable resource for gauging where you stand. This tool can provide critical insights into your level of self-compassion
So, what does TRUE self-compassion look like
Self-compassion essentially has three core components, as identified by Kristin Neff, namely:
Mindfulness in the context of self-compassion involves being aware of and acknowledging our painful thoughts and feelings without over-identifying with them or becoming overwhelmed. It means observing our negative experiences with a sense of openness and curiosity, rather than suppressing them or reacting to them with excessive self-judgement and self-criticism. 
Self-kindness involves treating ourselves with the same care and understanding that we would offer to a good friend, especially during times of failure, suffering, or inadequacy. Instead of responding to ourselves like a drill sergeant, kindness encourages us to be supportive of ourselves. This means recognising that it’s okay to be imperfect and that making mistakes is part of being human. 
Common Humanity:
Common humanity recognises that suffering and personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. Rather than feeling isolated by our own imperfections or mistakes, understanding common humanity means realising that everyone goes through difficult times and makes mistakes. Recognising our own humanness allows us to feel more connected to others, reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness that often accompany self-criticism. By acknowledging that our struggles are part of the universal human condition, we can foster a sense of belonging and empathy, both towards ourselves and others.
Too abstract still? Well, let me try to apply this more practically for you…  
Consider a high achiever, named Mel, who feels overwhelmed by her schedule and typically responds to feelings of overwhelm by criticising herself, skipping meals, cutting on exercise and sleep, and pushing herself verbally for not mastering her tasks. Here is what it would look like if Mel applied self-compassion to handle her situation instead of a drill-sergeant approach:
Mel acknowledges her feelings of overwhelm without judgment. She pauses and takes a few deep breaths, then reflects, “I’m feeling really overwhelmed and stressed about everything I need to complete today. It is a lot for me to handle at the moment.” This mindful recognition allows her to be present with her emotions without letting them take control, creating space for a more balanced response.
Next, Mel practices self-kindness by treating herself with the same compassion she would offer a friend. Instead of criticising herself for not being able to meet her own and other’s expectations, she responds with, “It is okay to feel overwhelmed. I am doing my best with the time I have and the amount of tasks allocated to me. I know it is important to take care of myself so I can manage the intense workload effectively”. She then takes practical steps to ensure she acts responsibly by scheduling short breaks to ensure she is focused, eating nutritious meals, staying hydrated, intentionally setting time aside to move her body, and reaching out to superiors to help her reprioritise tasks. 
Common Humanity:
Finally, Mel reminds herself that feeling overwhelmed is something we all experience from time to time. She reflects, “Everyone has days where they feel like they are not coping. I am not alone in this, and just because I feel overwhelmed does not mean I am inadequate. Other people face similar challenges and it is ok to reach out for help.”
Hopefully, by now, you’ve shed the notion that self-compassion is some fluffy, feel-good nonsense and started to see it for what it truly is: one of the most valuable life skills you can acquire.
Self-compassion is not about letting yourself off the hook or lounging around in a state of perpetual lasiness. Nope, it is quite the opposite. It is about doing what is good for you, even when it is toughespecially when it is tough! Think of it as the ultimate form of adulting, where you not only face your responsibilities but do so with a gentle, yet firm, hand.
For example, we all know exercise is good for us. It is just that little problem of it being, well, hard. But a self-compassionate mindset? That is your secret weapon. It is what gets you off the couch and into your running shoes, even when every fiber of your being would rather stay in bed binge-watching the latest true crime series.
So, next time you are tempted to roll your eyes at the idea of self-compassion, remember: it is not about pampering yourself with bubble baths and chocolate (though those are nice, too). It is about holding yourself accountable in the kindest way possible, and pushing yourself to do what is best for you, even when it is a struggle. And if that is not a superpower, I don’t know what is! 

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