I was having a conversation with a friend recently. She was really down on herself for what she felt was a big mistake she had made in her work. She was being so hard on herself that I felt I had to say something. 

Her self criticism wasn’t doing anything but serving to make her feel worse. So I asked her to turn it around. If I made a mistake at work, and was really berating myself for it, what would she say to me?  She paused for a moment and said, Well, I would say, “Everyone makes mistakes. Do the best you can to fix it and apologize if you feel you need to do that. There is nothing you can do at that point but move on. Beating up on yourself doesn’t help anything.” I then asked her, “Why can’t you say that to yourself?”  And we talked about it for a moment.

I have these conversations with people that I coach all the time and it still amazes me how smart, good, hard-working people can be so hard on themselves.  Often, these people are high achievers. 

It seems that many of us, including myself for most of my life, feel that if we let up on ourselves, that we are somehow going to start slacking off. We need to keep ourselves in line.  We demand nothing less than perfection from ourselves, and when we feel we don’t achieve it, judge ourselves harshly.  We view kindness to ourselves as self-indulgent or weak and use self-criticism as a way to motivate ourselves.

If someone we love makes a mistake or is otherwise being hard on themselves, we typically respond with kindness, understanding, concern. Having self-compassion just means allowing yourself the same understanding and kindness. 

There has been a lot of research into the idea of self-compassion in the last twenty or so years, and the findings indicate something quite different.  The evidence shows that self-compassion can provide us with an overall sense of well-being, including our sense of self-worth. People who are self-compassionate are less likely to struggle with depression and anxiety. They have strong social connections and are more empathetic and supportive toward others.  

Research also shows that self-compassion is linked to growth mindset – the belief that our abilities can grow over time with work, dedication and practice. If we believe that our skills and character can be improved, we can then be kind to ourselves and look for ways to do that. We can skip the burdensome self-critical mindset and move on to improving our performance.

I started to understand this myself when I was self-critical by asking myself a simple question: “How is this serving you?”  Answer: It wasn’t.  It wasn’t helping me, or the situation, or making anything better.  On the contrary, I realized that it kept me stuck – stuck in whatever situation I was struggling with, and unable to move forward.  

I like the Dr. Phil question: “How’s that working for you?”  It’s a good question to ask when it comes to this topic. If it’s not working, you may want to choose what does.  Lighten up on yourself and choose a different path.  Letting go of that “inner critic,” can open up a variety of possibilities.

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