by Meghan Hedrick
Behavior change can be difficult. The process of forming new habits almost always involves setbacks and struggles, and, although setbacks are normal, they are often accompanied by negative emotions and critical self-talk. Often, individuals trying to make lifestyle changes respond to setbacks with harsh self-talk and judgement. They set a goal, fall just short of reaching it, and then experience a variety of negative emotions and critical thoughts about their behavior. In addition to feeling unpleasant, negative emotions also make behavior change more difficult. Negative emotions impair the prefrontal cortex of the brain which can stunt curiosity, cognitive ability, and creative thinking. Thus, responding to failure with negativity and critical self-talk usually doesn’t lead to positive results.
A great tool for individuals who struggle with self-critical thoughts after setbacks, is self-compassion. Self-compassion consists of three main elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Essentially, self-compassion is “…extending kindness and understanding to oneself rather than harsh judgment and self-criticism…seeing one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and…holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.”
Although one might think self-compassion leads to complacency, research shows that self-compassion can help individuals take responsibility for their actions and improve in the future. In 2012, researchers Juliana Breines and Serena Chen conducted four experiments to test whether self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. They found that responding to a moral transgression, personal weakness, or a test failure with self-compassion motivates individuals to improve themselves and their performance. Additionally, a study conducted in 2007 examined whether self-compassion “moderates people’s reactions differently as a function of whether they perceive a negative event to be their fault.” The researchers found that individuals with higher levels of self-compassion were more willing to accept responsibility for their negative actions, less likely to ruminate after receiving a negative evaluation, and less likely to experience negative emotions when confronted with their mistakes.
Self-compassion is not simply letting oneself off the hook, but rather, it is approaching negative experiences with honesty and kindness. In the words of Kristin Neff, “[We] can own up to what [we’ve] done without fear, because admitting responsibility doesn’t require throwing [ourselves] off the cliff of harsh self-condemnation.” Compassion can be a gateway to emotional wellness, as defined in the Six Dimensions of Wellness Model, as it strengthens our “capacity to manage one’s feelings and related behaviors including the realistic assessment of one’s limitations, development of autonomy, and ability to cope effectively with stress.”
Those who help individuals navigate behavior change, such as wellness coaches and practitioners, can benefit from adding self-compassion to their list of emotional wellness tools. Not only can professionals teach the concepts of self-compassion to clients, equipping them with the knowledge to practice self-compassion, but they can also lead by example by creating a compassionate coaching environment. When coaches model this practice by showing warmth and compassion towards their clients, even when they are not making progress, their clients learn how to compassionately respond to setbacks.
Breines, J. G. & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. DOI: 10.1177/0146167212445599
Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Allen, A. B., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.
Neff, K.D. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 101 – 85.
Wellcoaches Coaching Psychology Manual, Second Edition
Neff, K. (2015, February 21). Does self-compassion mean letting yourself off the hook? Self. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://self-compassion.org/does-self-compassion-mean-letting-yourself-off-the-hook/