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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

The value of self-compassion: part 1 - the science

I think it is very common for us to imagine that being self critical and pulling ourselves in line helps us do better. While there are nuances in this and a tremendous amount we don’t understand, I now believe self compassion is a much better route.

At first glance it would seem that self criticism pushes us to act and avoid being lazy. We might fear that if we weren’t self critical, if we let ourselves off the hook and were kind to ourselves, we would sit on the couch all day.

In the short term, in some situations, self criticism can be a faster way to get things moving. But Kristin Neff, an associate professor, author and pioneer in the field of self-compassion offers a different perspective (one that is backed by scientific research). Here’s an analogy she offers:

Imagine a 10 year old child comes home from school feeling deflated after having done poorly on a test. If you harshly criticise that child and tell her she's pathetic and that she needs to pull herself together and do better, you'd probably agree that that would not be the best course of action (and yet we tend to constantly do this to ourselves in our own head). A far more beneficial approach would be to sit compassionately with that child, to let her know that we're all human, we all make mistakes and get things wrong sometimes. And then once she feels safe, understood and accepted despite her test scores, you could work with her to see what could be done so that she does better next time. For example, you might help her develop a better study routine.

While we may be more mature than a 10 year old child, we still hurt and heal the same way. We're still human. We have more in commonalities than we have differences.

For many of us, self criticism is almost a way of life. It's also often reinforced by the people around us, whether through observing how they live and work or in outright spoken words. So becoming less self-critical and more self-compassionate isn't necessarily easy. But understanding some of the science behind it can be helpful (which is what you’ll learn in this blog post). And in part two and three you'll get practical, actionable ways to become more self-compassionate and experience the benefits.

What's the science behind it?

Research shows that we tend to do our best work when we're calm and confident. Yes, there are going to be exceptions to this, but as a general rule, this holds true.

Now, you might be thinking 'but surely if I push myself to do better and work harder, I'll do even more, I'll find a way, I'll have the drive to make it happen". The reality is, there's a little more to it than that:

Criticism is a kind of attack. Thus, it often triggers a state of fear or some other kind of negative / survival emotion. It's using the fear of what will happen if you don't do xyz. When we use this as the driving force, it actually impedes us. This is because fear triggers the fight-or-flight response. This causes blood to be drained from the part of the brain you use for logical thinking and creative problem solving. It is a reaction that was designed to help our hunter gatherer ancestors escape physical threats such as a tiger. Because, in that situation it was more important to have fast reflexes than a deep understanding of a philosophical question. Therefore, when we're in that state, all our body's resources are used for survival rather than things like innovation, communication, goal setting ect.

Think about it, if you're being chased by a tiger, how likely are you to have clear thinking, to dream big, to try something new or communicate well with others? Not likely at all, because your first priority is getting out alive, until then, nothing else matters. While the fight-or-flight response that is generated through self-criticism is generally of a lesser intensity than this scenario, it's still there.

This state is also unsustainable. The fight-or-flight response was meant to be short and sporadic, for getting out of danger in emergencies. But now we tend to use it as a way of life for every task we undertake. In other words, you're working in a state that was designed for short sprints, but trying to keep it up for the marathon that is your life. Trying to sprint 24/7 365 days a year is destructive and bound to fail. The fight-or-flight response causes you to burn more energy than is necessary when there isn't a real physical danger. Thus, you are more tired. When you're tired your capacity to handle stress, work with others and think clearly and essentially do great work, is massively diminished. So there's a domino effect at play.

Research also shows that self criticism negatively impacts our belief in our own self efficacy. Believing in your ability to do something has a great impact on how you work or whether you even try. Think back to the analogy of the 10 year old girl. She's much more likely to want to try again and put in the work to get a positive outcome if you are kind and compassionate and if you tell her you believe in her, rather than if you are critical and say she’ll never make it. That feeling of being understood and cared for is much more likely to provide sustained energy throughout the inevitable ups and downs of life and work. If you make her feel like a complete failure again and again, she'll more likely begin to believe that and act accordingly.

"But won't I have lower standards?"

Research shows self-compassionate people have standards that are just as high as self-critical people. However, and here's the key point, when they fail, self-compassionate people are better at getting back up and seeing the failure as an opportunity for growth. With self-compassion you can move through the difficulty without getting stuck and repeatedly berating yourself for the mistake days, months, years or decades later. The energy that takes up alone is huge.

This means that if you trade self-criticism for self-compassion, there is less fear of failure. Because if you are self critical, you not only have to deal with the real repercussions of failure (eg: losing money on a project that didn’t work out), but you also have to deal with the self-criticism that’s added to it. Yet that fear of failure won't help. You'll actually be less intelligent and more tired because of it (due to the fight-or-flight response mentioned earlier). But if you can cultivate self-compassion, you essentially have a soft place to fall. That means it's no longer as scary.

Here's another scenario to highlight this: Imagine you're asked to walk along a painted line. If that line is painted on the ground it's easy to walk along it without stepping outside of it, you can even run along it without too much difficulty. But if that painted line is on top of a very high wall and the ground on either side is made of concrete, you won't go as fast. The line is still the same, (in fact it can be wider) but you’d probably stretch your arms out to give yourself extra balance. Your heart rate would probably go up and you would have to focus much more on what is objectively a simple thing to do. The only thing that's really changed is the consequence of falling.

Admittedly self-compassion can initially seem far less appealing than being self-critical. There's a certain toughness if you're really hard on yourself. But when something doesn't go well, you can acknowledge this with self-criticism or self-compassion. But the next question becomes: what's the best course of action to rectify this? Being self-compassionate not only allows you to get back up quicker, you also have more access to your resources (such as energy) as well as your resourcefulness (such as clear thinking and creativity). Your brain and body are working better. Would it not make sense to have the best chance at getting things right after a failure?

Now you have some understanding and scientific proof of why self-criticism isn't as helpful as we tend to think it is. In fact, it's an un-intelligent approach for long term success. To learn how to apply this knowledge into your life, read part two and part three

References / resources

Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff

High Performance Habits: How extraordinary people become that way by Burchard, Brendon

The EFT manual by Dawson Church

Cover photo by Igor Érico on Unsplash

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