My sister called me yesterday with a litany of reasons as to why she was a bad friend, a bad employee, and an overall bad egg. I’m no stranger to this litany. I’ve heard it from other family members, friends, clients, and I’ve even sung it myself. It goes like this: we mess up; we punish ourselves.
The problem is not in acknowledging a failure. If we noted where we came up short and focused on how to do things differently, we could get back to the business of being our best selves. Things get sticky when we create the faulty belief we are failures. As punishment, this is a doozy. As motivation for doing things differently, it stinks.
You may think a good dose of self-punishment equals not screwing up the next time. Data say otherwise. The more we berate ourselves about failures or shortcomings, the less likely we are to effectively tackle them. It’s as if we decide we are unworthy to be better or to succeed, so we quit trying. What is motivational is self-compassion, and most of us could benefit immensely from upping the levels of this stuff.
Practicing self-compassion when you mess up means flipping the script from self-blame and self-criticism to self-kindness. You comfort yourself the way you comfort people you love when they mess up. You remind yourself, just as you remind those you love, you are not alone in imperfection. Everyone messes up; it is part of being human. Finally, you stay in the present. Failure does not have to be summative of your past or predictive of your future. It can simply be what it is.
Re-writing critical, judgmental scripts when you have disappointed yourself can be wickedly hard work. But research finds practicing self-compassion lowers levels of depression, anxiety, and stress. Furthermore, self-compassion increases happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and resilient coping.
If you worry practicing self-compassion means losing your edge or becoming comfortable with mediocrity, relax. Self-compassion is not ignoring or denying areas for growth. It is loving yourself in spite of them. Self-compassion requires us to be accountable for our behaviors, to recognize how these link us to others, and to know we are worthy of being our best selves.
References & Resources
MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545-552. http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/metaanalysis.pdf
Neff, K. (2016). Self-Compassion. http://self-compassion.org (This website, created has great information, resources, and quizzes focused on self-compassion.)
Neff, K. (2015). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Zessin, U., Dickhauser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The relationship between self-compassion and well-being: A meta-analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340-364. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26311196