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Stanford University School of Medicine

“We are all works in progress:” A Q&A on self-compassion

For those who believe that “being your own worst critic” will toughen you up and ultimately make you perform better, Leah Weiss, PhD, who lectures at the Graduate School of Business, has another message.

Weiss, who teaches courses on compassionate leadership and Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Program, explains that self-compassion is necessary for success and mental well-being, whereas self-criticism can result in anxiety and stress that lead to procrastination and reduced productivity. BeWell Stanford spoke with Weiss recently to learn more.

Isn’t self-criticism necessary for productivity?

Despite what is often taught, self-criticism is not necessary — and, in fact, is detrimental to productivity. Self-criticism causes you to procrastinate and hide from your mistakes rather than correct them. It also harms your relationships with colleagues rather than improving them. Contrary to what we have been educated and brought up to believe, self-hate — manifested as an inability to tolerate failure — actually impedes success and hinders you from the motivation to do better.

Conversely, self-compassion fosters reduced procrastination and a greater ability to accept and learn from failure and critical feedback.

Stepping back, can you define self-compassion? Is it different from self-esteem?

Simply put, self-esteem is an overall evaluation of yourself. In any given moment, if I believe that I am a good person and am performing well, I will have high self-esteem. If I feel I’ve fallen short compared to what I could do or what others around me are doing, I will experience low self-esteem. We move through our days vacillating in response to how we are judging ourselves and how we are stacking up against others.

Conversely, self-compassion is the capacity to be kind to yourself, especially when you are struggling:

  • Self-compassion is predicated on the ability to be aware of what you are feeling, aka mindfulness — of your own suffering, recognizing your own physical pain, difficulties, negative (and often self-critical) thoughts and disappointments.
  • Self-compassion also involves recognizing, while you are experiencing a challenge, that you are not uniquely bad nor alone in it; you are cognizant of a common humanity. Self-compassion involves remembering that we all experience pain, we all blow it from time to time, we are all 'works in progress.'
  • When you are self-compassionate, you treat yourself with friendliness rather than piling on self-deprecation.

Why is it important to distinguish between self-esteem and self-compassion?

Self-esteem ultimately undercuts our capacity for resilience because it is an unreliable and unsustainable approach to mental well-being.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows for mental well-being, better metabolizing of stress, lower anxiety, decreased depression, and diminished dysfunctional perfectionism. Self-compassion stimulates happiness, greater motivation, greater initiative, healthier lifestyle choices and better interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, self-compassion bolsters you to be less critical of your mistakes and buffers you from the rollercoaster ride of a self-esteem mindset.

Why is perfectionism a quality worth avoiding?

The combination of exceedingly high standards and a preoccupation with extreme self-critical evaluation is what defines excessive perfectionism.

Perfectionism is associated with anxiety and worse performance, not only in work and in any educational context, but also in sports. Perfectionism cripples our ability to do our work and ultimately leads to burnout: we can’t get something done, let alone started, because our standards are too high.

What simple thing can we do today to become more self-compassionate?

Think how you would respond to a friend or respected coworker that needs support. Try that response on — with yourself. Recognize that someone, right now, needs and deserves compassion. That someone is you.

This article, in a slightly altered form, originally appeared on BeWell Stanford. 

Previously: Embracing hardship: A surprising secret to happiness and Stanford neurosurgeon-writer encourages people to practice kindness and compassion
Photo by Ildigo

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