Many of us will start out the New Year by making a list of resolutions – changes we want to make to be happier such as eating better, volunteering more often, being a more attentive spouse, and so on. But, as we know, we will often fail. After a few failures we will typically give up and go back to our old habits.
Why is it so hard to stick to resolutions that require us to make effective or lasting changes?
I would argue the problem isn’t that we try and we fail — the problem is how we treat ourselves when we fail. I study self-compassion, and my research and that of others show that how we relate to personal failure — with kindness or harsh self-judgment — is incredibly important for building resilience.
From early childhood, we are taught how we must succeed at all costs. What most of us aren’t taught is how to fail successfully so we can change and grow.
One of the best ways to deal with failure is to have self-compassion.
What exactly is self-compassion?
I define self-compassion as having three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring, understanding, and supportive toward ourselves when we fail or make mistakes rather than being harshly critical or judgmental.
Common humanity involves recognizing that all humans are imperfect, and connecting our own flawed condition to the shared human condition so we can have greater perspective on our shortcomings.
Mindfulness involves being aware of the pain associated with failure in a clear and balanced manner so that we neither ignore nor obsess about our faults. The three together combine to create a self-compassionate frame of mind.
A large body of research shows that self-compassion results in greater emotional well-being. One of the most consistent findings in this research is that greater self-compassion is linked to less depression, anxiety and stress.
In addition to reducing such negative mind states, self-compassion appears to enhance positive mind states such as optimism, gratitude, and curiosity. By meeting one’s suffering with the warm embrace of self-compassion, positive feelings such as happiness are generated at the same time that negative emotions are alleviated.
Self-compassion has been found to be an important source of coping and resilience in the face of various life stressors such as divorce, chronic health conditions, or military combat. It also reduces body dissatisfactionand even leads to healthier eating behavior (relevant to many New Year’s resolutions!)
Misgivings about self-compassion
If self-compassion is so good for us, why aren’t we kinder to ourselves?
Perhaps the biggest block to self-compassion is the belief that it will undermine our motivation. In parenting circles we no longer hold to the adage “spare the rod spoil the child.” When it comes to our own selves, however, many of us think that sparing the rod of harsh self-criticism will turn us into lazy, self-indulgent ne’er-do-wells. This theme constantly comes up in the workshops I teach.