There’s No Self-Improvement without Self-Compassion

I used to get annoyed by terms like self-love and self-compassion.

They seemed like a shallow blend of new-age nonsense and useless self-indulgence.

But then a funny thing happened that completely changed my mind: I started writing about self-improvement.

The gaping hole at the heart of self-improvement

I started blogging in 2017. My goal was to take the best ideas and techniques that I used in my work as a psychologist and show how they could be useful beyond the therapy office for anyone who wanted to work on personal growth and development.

As I started writing about how to use psychology to improve our mental health and achieve our goals, I quickly found myself immersed in the world of self-improvement.

At first, it was exciting. Motivating articles about getting up super early to work on your passion; how you could throw off your deepest insecurities and take on the world; brilliant techniques to build new habits and break down bad ones. You know the stuff I’m talking about.

But pretty quickly, I started to sense that something was a little bit off inside the exciting wonderland of self-improvement. The whole change your life in 5 simple steps culture was staring to feel a little… sleazy? The longer I read this stuff the more I felt like I was hanging out at a used car dealership or a multi-level marketing seminar.

The surface was shinny and exciting, but the core seemed hollow, if not rotten:

  • Lots of simplistic I did it and so can you stuff.
  • Plenty of motivational quotes from inspiring celebrities, but not much in terms of nuts-and-bolts technique.
  • An almost complete avoidance of the obstacles and barriers that make real improvements difficult for people.
  • A pervasive absence of sensitivity to the contextual and environmental factors that influence improvement, wellbeing, and success (read: privilege).
  • But the most insidious part of all: The implication that you’re not good enough the way you are.

The paradoxical problem with so many of the well-intentioned self-improvement articles out there—including some of my own—is that they end up invalidating the core ingredient required for genuine and lasting self-improvement: Self-compassion.

What’s self-compassion got to do with self-improvement?

In my own work as a therapist, I see people’s best intentions and plans for improvement fall victim to the same problem: They can’t sustain their progress, in large part because they lack self-compassion.

Here’s an example:

A young client of mine—we’ll call him Sam—was a brilliant 3rd year college student studying pre-med. At 20 years old, the kid had never gotten less than an A in his life and was on a full-ride to one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

On top of his intellectual prowess, he was also an incredibly diligent and hard-working student. Sam told me about his reputation for being the hardest working kid in his school because he could always be found somewhere around campus studying—early mornings, nights, weekends, even holidays.

But there was a problem… crippling anxiety, procrastination, and emerging depression. What no one else saw about this young paragon of intellect and achievement was that he was burning out quickly.

All that extra studying and hard work actually had nothing to do with getting ahead and everything to do with staying afloat. He spent long hours in the library studying because he experienced so much anxiety and procrastination that it took him 3 times as long to do the work all his classmates were doing.

After only a few sessions it was clear to me why Sam, with all his gifts, talents, and motivation was in serious danger of really crashing: He was awful to himself.

Growing up in a cold, rigidly achievement-oriented family, Sam had internalized an intensely negative and judgmental way of talking to himself. He berated himself constantly in his own mind for being too weak, not working hard enough, and pretending to be more than he was.

And while this fear/shame-based drill-sergeant motivational strategy had worked to a point, it was destroying him now.

Sam had spent his whole life obsessively focused on self-improvement, especially academically. But now he was being crushed under the weight of his own aspirations because he had no core of self-confidence, self-compassion, or self-love to stand on. His narrow pursuit of academic success left him no time to discover his own interests, joys, passions, or values.

Sam is a perfect, if extreme, example of the central paradox of self-improvement:

Spend too much time focused on improvement and you lose the self. And without a solid sense of self, all steps toward improvement are bound to collapse eventually.

Because no matter how brilliant or talented you are, you will stumble, screw up, and fail at some point. And your capacity to bounce back and persevere has little to do with your technical skills and intellectual powers, and everything to do with your sense of self-worth.

To be resilient, you must cultivate self-compassion

Think about the best mentors you’ve ever had in your life, anyone who’s helped you grow—could be parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, counselors, even good friends.

What they all likely have in common in their approach to helping you grow and succeed is a balance of acceptance and challenge. In other words, they’re simultaneously supportive and accepting, but also challenging and stimulating. They meet you where you are and help push you to where you want to go.

If we’re surrounded by people like this from a young age, we internalize that balance of self-acceptance and compassion along with achievement and challenge. This gives us the tools to strive and move forward toward our goals and dreams, as well as the resilience to pick ourselves up and bounce back after setbacks.

This becomes increasingly important as we get older and life gets more complicated and stressful and we learn more and more that setbacks are inevitable. We learn that talent and desire are not enough to achieve our goals—we need resilience and perseverance as well.

But many of us didn’t have people in our early lives who gave us a template for how to be compassionate with ourselves. In fact, they probably taught us the opposite: that to achieve great things and stay motivated, you need to be tough on yourself. Which is why so many of us have such harsh inner self-talk—we think we need it to stay motivated.

But what if that’s not true? What if you are able to stay motivated, productive, and achieve great things despite your harsh inner voice and self-view not because of it? What if your drill sergeant inner narrator is sabotaging your happiness and resilience to adversity without actually giving any benefit in exchange? What if the medicine is all side effect and no benefit?

The only sustainable path to achievement and happiness is to cultivate self-compassion

I had an old mentor and supervisor whose favorite line was:

Falling off the wagon isn’t the problem; it’s the rolling around in the mud that gets us.

In other words, setbacks are inevitable. But they’re not the problem. It’s how we respond to them that defines us and determines our future.

Unfortunately, many of us have been trained over years to believe that we must be harsh with ourselves to stay motivated and achieve our goals and happiness in life. But this harsh, judgmental self-view is exactly the thing that causes us to fail:

  • Cheating on your diet with that bowl of ice-cream after dinner isn’t the problem. It’s all the self-recrimination, guilt-tripping, and shit-talking you do to yourself after that leads to giving up on the diet.
  • Missing a workout one day because you’re exhausted after work isn’t the problem. It’s that you berate yourself for being weak and inconsistent that deflates you and saps you of motivation and energy to get back at it tomorrow.

It’s a truism in the self-improvement world that consistency is king. That the key to achieving your goals and finding success in any area mostly comes down to persevering, day-in and day-out, month after month, year after year.

And I think this is largely true. But the biggest obstacle to consistency is ourselves, in particular, how harsh and judgmental we are with ourselves after setbacks. We end up failing at our goals because we convince ourselves that we’re failures any time we stumble.

Of course 95% percent of diets fail! Of course, 92% of gym memberships go inactive after a month!

The good news is, there’s a relatively easy fix to this quandary we all find ourselves in: Stop being an a$$hole to yourself.

Really, you’ll be amazed at what you’re capable of when you simply remove the burden of judgmentalness and self-criticism. You don’t need to add anything. You’re good. Just stop telling yourself you aren’t.

One of my favorite writers, James Clear, has a simple rule for himself for staying consistent and being successful in any area he’s working at, from weight lifting to writing:

Never miss twice.

I love this because it implies that missing, and perhaps even frequently missing, is inevitable but not really a big deal. As long as you don’t make too much of your misses, you’ll end up winning in the long run.

All you need to know

I believe self-improvement is a noble pursuit. Whether it’s losing weight, learning Mandarin, or starting a blog, the desire to be better and grow is a wonderful thing.

But genuine, lasting growth can only be built on a foundation of gentleness and compassion.

So, even if “love yourself” seems a bit much, simply try to be a little nicer to yourself, especially when you’re pursuing something challenging and meaningful.

Remember:

  • Setbacks are inevitable and normal. It’s how we respond to them that matters.
  • Don’t roll around in the mud. Remind yourself that wagons are bumpy beasts and hop back on.
  • Never miss twice. The best way to stay consistent with progress is to be gentle with yourself during setbacks.
  • Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend. Push yourself to succeed, but be encouraging when you slip up.

You’re good. Sure you’ve got baggage, weaknesses, things you regret and areas for improvement. But deep down, you’re good.

Get in the habit of reminding yourself of that and you’ll have learned the biggest self-improvement hack there is.

18 Comments

Linda Williamson September 2, 2019 Reply

Love your writing. Sounds like conversation. Had to smile when you alluded to your upbringing. Keep at it.
You made me feel better about eating the half pint of coffee ice cream for dinner last night.
A good thing about old age is that I don’t beat myself up about the little things now. Something to look forward to.

Nick Wignall September 2, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Linda 🙂 Really glad the writing comes across as conversational! Probably owe a lot of it to you!

It’s possible this whole article was just a way for me to rationalize my own ice-cream habits 🙂

Emma September 2, 2019 Reply

Another article that I absolutely love. Great point on commenting the current self improvement articles out there. Resiliency matters way more than simple hard working.

Nick Wignall September 2, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Emma 🙂

Fred September 2, 2019 Reply

Nick – another wonderful article that really hit home. Whenever I see a new article from you in my inbox, some dopamine kicks in with anticipation.

I’m so focused on studying self-improvement that I find my self past the Inverted U optimal point too often so this article was really useful to me.

Thanks as always
Fred

Nick Wignall September 2, 2019 Reply

Thanks so much, Fred! Yeah, it’s so easy to find ourselves a little too far on that side of the curve. Probably inevitable, which is why building the capacity to be aware if it is key!

Jason September 2, 2019 Reply

Hi Nick – There is a lot here which really speaks to my journey as a person in his 50s trying to be a better me. Each of the four bold “Remember” points are now printed out and colourfully stuck above my desk to remind me that I need to be kinder to myself. Thanks again.

Nick Wignall September 2, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Jason 🙂 Glad it was helpful.

Joe Van Wyk September 2, 2019 Reply

Hi Nick,
You have had a big impact on me in recent months. Your article on Behavioral Activation was a huge eye-opener. In fact, I am making that a principle in a curriculum I am creating called Healing Photography. https://www.joevanwyk.com/healingphotography
I may be reaching out to you at some point for some consulting help on social media, if that is something you are open to.
Blessings,
Joe

Nick Wignall September 2, 2019 Reply

Looks like a really cool project, Joe! I was a photographer in a former life, so combining mental health and photography is right up my alley. Hit me up whenever if I can help!

A.J Buswell September 2, 2019 Reply

Hi Nick,
couldn’t have come at a better time or on a better day for me.

? I asked myself where the clapping hands had gone!

Nick Wignall September 3, 2019 Reply

Awesome!

Mary Ann Koruth September 4, 2019 Reply

Thank you Nick! This was beautifully written and so helpful.

Nick Wignall September 4, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Mary!!

Ngeh Basile Takwa September 7, 2019 Reply

Be nice to yourself! That captures it all. Thank you, Nick.

However, how may I understand procrastination in Sam’s story? Sam was always working. When did he procrastinate? Thank you

Nick Wignall September 7, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Ngeh. Sam didn’t procrastinate much at all.

Ngeh Basile Takwa September 8, 2019 Reply

Ok, Nick. That’s quite understandable.
Thank you so very much

Henrique Mesak September 19, 2019 Reply

The example of your patient, Sam, remembers me of Goethe’s Dr Faust. At some point the very intellectually developed character finds himself surrounded by doubts about his life’s meaning, implying the sterility of the obsessive pursuit of knowledge in the absence of substance. Great article right here, congrats for capturing such a core insight about life, and for the intellectual generosity of sharing it with us all.

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