Whether we’re high-power execs or stay-at-home moms, self-criticism is a tendency that many people have. In fact, we often think of self-criticism as key to self-improvement. We fall for the idea that self-criticism pushes us to perform better and to live up to higher standards. Yet we couldn’t be more wrong. Research shows that self-criticism is more akin to self-sabotage. It actually hurts our performance, productivity and well-being.
Women in particular tend to be highly self-critical. They tend to blame themselves when they fail and attribute their successes to other people and circumstances. (Men tend to do the opposite: blame circumstances if they fail and attribute their wins to themselves.) This is one reason why women often fail to ask for promotions. In researching my book “The Happiness Track,” I realized that self-compassion is key to resilience—at work and in our personal lives.
Here are the ways research shows self-criticism holds you back:
- It keeps you focused on what’s wrong with you, thereby decreasing your confidence.
- It makes you afraid of failure, which hurts your performance, makes you give up more easily and leads to poor decision-making.
- It makes you less resilient in the face of failure and also less likely to learn from mistakes.
The benefits of self-compassion, soft as that concept may sound, is backed up by hard data—much of which has been compiled by pioneer researcher Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author of the book “Self-Compassion.” Self-compassion has been linked to a host of benefits. Self-compassion means treating yourself as you would a friend in times of failure or pain—with more understanding and kindness. It means remembering Alexander Pope’s quote, “To err is human”—we all make mistakes. And it means being mindful of your emotions and thoughts without over-identifying with them. Self-compassion doesn’t mean being overly self-indulgent, but it also doesn’t involve beating yourself up to no avail.
Here’s how self-compassion can give you an extra edge:
- It increases motivation and willpower.
- It brings you greater perspective and therefore better decision-making.
- It makes you more resilient: You more easily bounce back in the face of failure and learn from your mistakes.
- It makes you more emotionally intelligent and therefore improves your relationships.
- It lowers you stress levels and decreases feeling overwhelmed.
- It boosts your psychological well-being and decreases anxiety and depression.
- It even improves your health.
Applying self-compassion can take some practice. Here are two empirically validated ways you can do so:
Notice your self-talk. Neff suggests that in times of failure or challenge, noticing your self-talk can help you curb self-criticism and replace it with self-compassion. For example, instead of saying things like, “How could I have done this? I’m such an idiot!” you might say, “I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that’s OK. It could have happened to anyone; it’s no big deal.”
Write yourself a letter. When your emotions are overwhelming, Neff suggests writing a letter to yourself as if you were writing to a friend. Let’s say you made a costly error and are feeling angry with yourself. It might feel stilted or strange at first, but write a letter as if you were writing it to someone dear to you who had committed the same error. Your words should comfort and not attack, normalizing the situation rather than blowing it out of proportion. A number of studies demonstrate that writing about your emotions can help regulate them.
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