Most people are at war with themselves—and they don’t even know it.
From a young age, most of us are raised to believe that being tough on ourselves is necessary for success and happiness in life. Like the army drill sergeant hurling insults at their “soft” recruits, we grow up believing that we’ll always be weak unless we “get tough” with ourselves.
And so, from the earliest ages, we develop habits of harshness:
- We actively criticize ourselves for everything but the highest levels of performance or achievement.
- We endlessly ruminate on past mistakes, assuming that with enough self-punishment we’ll be motivated to never make them again in the future.
- We judge ourselves for feeling afraid or embarrassed or just tired because it seems like a sign of weakness or poor character.
There are two problems with this belief in the necessity of harshness and all the habits that go with it:
- It doesn’t work.
- It makes you miserable.
I’ve never met a genuinely happy person who was constantly mean to themselves. And most of the successful people I know achieved their success despite any habits of self-punishment, not because of them.
Fear and punishment are not sustainable strategies for anything except misery.
But when you’ve built your whole life around the belief that I’ll fail unless I’m tough on myself, letting go can be a challenge.
Much of my own work as a psychologist involves people who are well on their way to success in life, but they’re increasingly miserable and burning out. They’re realizing that success without happiness isn’t really success at all.
And so they come to therapy wanting to “let go” of their negative self-talk and self-judgments. But here’s the thing, you can’t simply “let go” of a strategy you’ve built your entire life around without building something new in its place.
Self-compassion is a surprisingly simple concept: It means treating yourself like you would treat a good friend, especially during times of doubt, hardship, or failure.
And luckily, it’s a skill anyone can learn to build, the benefits of which are transformative: In addition to elevating your baseline levels of happiness and contentment, self-compassion will make you stronger and more productive. Because when you stop dumping your energy into beating yourself up, you can invest it in your goals and aspirations and supercharge your progress toward them.
But self-compassion isn’t a single decision. It’s an attitude and way of being that has to be built up over time. And the way to build it is with habits. In this article, I’m going to walk you through 5 habits to help foster greater self-compassion.
Learn to observe your emotions without judgment
As a psychologist, I’m always surprised at how judgmental people are with themselves, especially for something they have no direct control over—their emotions.
Look, it doesn’t make any sense to pass moral judgment on something you can’t control. This is why in the legal system no one gets sent to prison for feeling really angry; you only get convicted and punished if you act on that feeling in a way that harms others. You can’t control your emotions, only your actions.
So we all know intellectually that judging ourselves for how we feel doesn’t make any sense. And yet, we still do it constantly:
- We tell ourselves we’re weak for feeling sad.
- We criticize ourselves for feeling anxious and nervous instead of confident and powerful.
- We judge ourselves as morally weak because we feel frustrated and irritable instead of loving and generous.
You wouldn’t judge other people for having brown hair, green eyes, or an alcoholic father because none of those things are under their control.
So why are you judging yourself for how you feel when it’s not something you can control?!
If only we could directly change our emotions: We could just crank up the happiness dial or hit the “calm” button. Wouldn’t that be nice!
But being judgmental of your own emotions doesn’t just not make sense, it makes you miserable. If you’re constantly judging and criticizing yourself for something you can’t control, you’re going to feel weak, worthless, and eventually, hopeless.
The solution is to learn to observe your emotions and notice them without passing judgment on them.
Good scientists know that before you start creating theories and running experiments, it’s important to carefully observe things. Similarly, before you rush to start punishing yourself for how you feel, try observing it instead.
The best way to get started with this is to practice labeling your emotions with simple, plain language. Anytime you feel upset, instead of avoiding the feeling or glossing over it with vague language like “I’m stressed” or “I’m overwhelmed,” try describing how you feel like a six-year-old would:
- I’m sad.
- I’m angry.
- I feel afraid.
- I feel guilty.
- I’m getting irritated.
- I’m lonely.
- I feel proud of myself.
When you get in the habit of describing your emotions in plain, ordinary language—instead of intellectualizing them—you’ll find yourself being less and less judgmental of them. And, bit by bit, you’ll become a little better at self-compassion.
Can you look without the voice in your head commenting, drawing conclusions, comparing, or trying to figure something out?”
― Eckhart Tolle
Make a little time in your evening for a daily review
A common misconception about self-compassion is that it’s some kind of naive belief in mystical positivity—as if the simple decision to “love yourself” will somehow wash away all your hardships. This is nonsense.
Self-compassion is about being realistic with yourself.
See, most people who are in the habit of being harsh and judgmental with themselves are actually highly irrational and unrealistic in their thinking. I mean, what could be more empirically wrong than telling yourself “Ugh, I’m such a screw up” after getting an A on a test instead of an A+? Or predicting to yourself that “I’m probably going to get fired” after a presentation that didn’t get as good a reception as you were imagining?
Self-compassion is simply about being realistic in your assessments of yourself and your performance:
- Well, I am a little disappointed that I didn’t get the A+, but an A is still really good, especially considering the class average was a B-.
- That wasn’t my best performance, but everyone has off days sometimes.
Remember practicing self-compassion is the same as being compassionate toward others, except that it’s turned inward. If a friend came to you worried about a mistake at work and getting fired, you probably would not tell them to “get your sh!t together and stop being so lazy.” Instead, you’d be compassionate and supportive in a realistic way: “Yeah, I’d be disappointed to, but we all make mistakes and I doubt it’s something you’d actually get fired for.”
A great way to practice being more compassionate and realistic with yourself after mistakes or setbacks is building a habit of a daily review.
A daily review is a simple routine for looking back on your day in an objective, balanced way—noting both the positives and the things you could work on.
Here’s how to get started with a daily review:
- Pick a 5-minute window of time in your evening. Set a recurring reminder in your phone to go off each day at that time.
- When your reminder goes off, pull up a note on your phone (or use a physical notebook) and write two headings: 1) What went well today? And 2) What could I improve on?
- Then, spend a couple minutes reviewing your day and briefly noting things that come to mind for each.
- Importantly, this should be a quick exercise. You’re not writing an essay. Just note a few things and be done. The whole exercise should take no more than 5 minutes.
If you can do this consistently for a week or two, you’ll find it easier to be objective and compassionate with yourself for your missteps and mistakes. And what’s more, you’ll find yourself noticing moments of success more often and giving yourself credit for them!
I thank God for my failures. Maybe not at the time but after some reflection. I never feel like a failure just because something I tried has failed.
— Dolly Parton
Use positive reinforcement to motivate yourself
One of the worst effects of growing up under the belief that you have to be hard on yourself in order to succeed is that your default motivational strategy becomes punishment.
You learn to use fear of negative consequences as the driver of achievement and goals:
- Unless I do really well in this exam, I won’t get into a good college and my chances of becoming a doctor will be shot.
- My boss is going to be disappointed unless I nail this client meeting.
- If I don’t figure out how to be more patient, my kids are going to hate me when they grow up.
This use of punishment for motivation is so common that most people aren’t even aware that they’re doing it or that there’s any other way to motivate yourself.
This is tragic for a couple of reasons:
- First, the side effects of a punishment-as-motivator strategy are brutal. The chronic guilt, shame, fear, stress, and anger that goes along with relying only on punishment to get things done is a miserable way to go through life.
- Second, it’s not that effective. Talk to any behavioral scientist and they’ll tell you that, in the long-run, punishment is a pretty poor overall strategy for behavior change. Whether you’re talking about potty training dogs or motivating your employees, punishment isn’t a sustainable plan for motivation.
Luckily, there’s an alternative motivational strategy that’s both more effective and more enjoyable: positive reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement simply means having some sort of reward or reinforcer that follows the behavior you want more of. For example, suppose you want to work on being more patient with your kids. Positive reinforcement would be rewarding yourself each time you held your tongue or responded to your kid’s shenanigans with a calm but firm voice rather than yelling.
And the best part is, the nature of the reward itself doesn’t matter all that much. You don’t have to throw yourself a party or buy a new car each time you do something well. Usually, a very small reminder of success is enough.
My favorite strategy for positive reinforcement is called the Seinfeld Strategy. Here’s how it would work if your goal was to be gentler and more patient with your kids:
- Buy a wall calendar and hang it somewhere obvious in your home—maybe on the refrigerator.
- Get a brightly colored marker, tape a string to it, and hang the marker from the calendar.
- Each time you successfully hold your tongue or respond patiently to your kid, put a little green checkmark or star in that day’s box.
- Repeat and watch your green marks grow!
Now, you may think this sounds silly and childish, but take it from me—a behavioral psychologist—it will work. The size of the reward is far less important than the mere fact of doing something right away to acknowledge your successes.
So, pick one area of your life where you use a positive reinforcement strategy to motivate yourself and see how it goes for a few weeks. Then, use it in a different area the next month.
Over time, you’ll find that your mind becomes more and more used to positive reinforcement as a motivational strategy. And among the many, many benefits of this shift, I think you’ll find that your self-compassion will rise on its own simply because you’re not relying so much on punishment throughout your days.
Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.
Temper negative self-talk with cognitive restructuring
There’s no surer sign of poor self-compassion than habitually negative self-talk.
Negative self-talk is when the voice in our head—the one you use to talk to yourself and about what’s going on in your life—is overly negative, judgmental, and harsh.
For example, after a disagreement with a coworker in which you said some things you regret, the voice in your head sounds like this:
- I can’t believe I said that! I’m awful. No wonder I screw up every good relationship that comes my way.
- He’s probably going to tell everyone in the office how nasty I am. I’m sure my boss will hear about it too. I’ll probably get fired.
- Why can’t I just be nicer to people. I’m always so mean and judgmental. I should just find a job where I don’t have to interact with anyone.
The thing to notice about negative self-talk is that not only is it negative in tone, but it’s irrational. People who have a habit of negative self-talk consistently fall into logical errors of thinking, which lead to—among other things—feeling excessively bad about themselves.
For example, negative self-talk often involves black & white thinking, which means you interpret things in extremes when really the truth is in the middle. When you tell yourself I’m awful it suggests that you are literally always awful, all the time, and to everyone. Which of course isn’t true. But if you tell yourself this enough, you’re going to feel like it is true.
Another example of errors in thinking during negative self-talk is fortune-telling. Fortune telling is when you predict the future based on little or no good evidence. When you predict “I’ll probably get fired,” you’re making an assumption about the future based not on any real evidence, but instead, based on how you feel.
Luckily, there’s an effective technique for undoing the habit of negative self-talk called cognitive restructuring. Here’s how it works:
- Anytime you notice yourself feeling especially bad, hit the pause button and ask yourself, Okay, what’s going on here?
- Next, notice how you’re feeling emotionally (sad, angry, anxious, etc.)
- Now pay attention to the thoughts or self-talk that ran through your mind immediately before or while you started feeling that way. And ask yourself, How realistic is this way of thinking?
- Try to list two or three alternative ways of interpreting the same thing. For example, if your self-talk was “I’m probably going to get fired,” you might suggest some alternatives like “I might get reprimanded, but it’s unlikely that I get fired.” Or, “This has happened before and it’s never been much of an issue.”
- After generating some alternative thoughts, go back to how you’re feeling and see if there’s been a shift. Chances are you’ll still feel upset, but slightly less so than before.
If you’d like to learn more about cognitive restructuring, I put together a far more comprehensive guide here.
The point is, it’s important to challenge your automatic thoughts and interpretations of things, especially if they tend to be overly-negative and judgmental.
By questioning your thoughts and then flexibly generating alternatives, you are training your mind to be more realistic in its default reactions. And as a result, you’re more likely to respond to mistakes or difficult events with compassion and intelligence rather than judgment and bias.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.
― Albert Einstein
Validate your mistakes with constructive comparisons
Unsurprisingly, mistakes and errors are really where our self-judgments tend to come out.
The minute we realize we made a mistake, performed poorly, or did something wrong, our automatic response tends to be getting tough with ourselves. In fact, this habit is so strong that many people don’t even realize they’re doing it or that there’s an alternative.
One technique I’ve found quite helpful for learning to be more compassionate with yourself—especially in the face of mistakes—is something called constructive comparisons.
But let’s back up a second… Probably the best thing written about self-compassion is the book of the same name by Dr. Kristen Neff, a psychologist and the preeminent self-compassion researcher. In the book, she explains that there are three core elements of self-compassion: Self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
So far, the habits I’ve recommended have largely been about improving your ability to be kind to yourself and to be mindful rather than judgmental of your own experiences. But this final habit, constructive comparisons, is based on Neff’s third—and perhaps most interesting—component of self-compassion, common humanity.
The basic idea is that in order to be compassionate toward ourselves, it helps to remind yourself that, in one way or another, we’re all in this together. Everybody makes mistakes, has regrets, and wants to be better. On the other hand, making mistakes can feel even worse when we feel alone in our mistakes.
Constructive comparison takes advantage of this common humanity principle by encouraging you to think about other people who have made similar mistakes and how they might have responded.
Here’s what you do:
- The next time you make a mistake or perform poorly and start to feel yourself getting harsh and judgmental, think about someone in your life you really admire.
- Next, take a minute to imagine that person making a mistake similar to yours. Really try to visualize the scenario and fill in the details.
- Now, imagine how that person would respond to their mistake. What would they say to themselves? What would they choose to do after the mistake? How might they feel?
- Finally, ask yourself how that person would respond to your mistake? Would they be judgmental or compassionate? Can I be similarly compassionate with myself?
The key idea is that by imagining other people whom you admire making mistakes, you’re reminding yourself that it’s normal and okay to make mistakes. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you; it just means you’re human like the rest of us.
Not only will this help you to feel less alone in your mistake, but it will also foster a new habit of being compassionate with yourself when you make a mistake rather than harsh.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
― Mother Teresa
All you need to know
If you find that you’re consistently harsh, judgmental, or even downright mean to yourself, the solution is self-compassion. But self-compassion is not a single choice or intention, it’s a constant way of life. And if you’ve lacked self-compassion, it’s going to take some time and effort to build it. But with the right habits in place, anyone can learn to become more compassionate toward themselves:
Learn to observe your emotions without judgment.
Make a little time in your evening for a daily review.
Use positive reinforcement to motivate yourself.
Temper negative self-talk with cognitive restructuring.
Validate your mistakes with constructive comparisons.