The secret to achieving your dreams and goals? Practice self-compassion

18th August 2021
 minute read

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Struggling with motivation? Here, we look at why self-compassion might be your biggest helper — and self-criticism your biggest hindrance...

There is a famously chilling scene in the hit movie Whiplash where ambitious music student, Andrew, is bullied to tears by his temperamental jazz teacher, Fletcher. The scene is painful for both Andrew and the viewer, making Fletcher seem close to a monster. Yet later on he justifies his behaviour, suggesting that harsh feedback is the secret to unleashing genius.

‘There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”’, he concludes. In other words, as far as Fletcher is concerned, tough criticism is a much more powerful motivator to greatness than gentle encouragement. And indeed, it seems to encourage Andrew to push himself to the limit — but at a painful cost.

Just a few years earlier, another popular movie, Black Swan, showed ballerina Nina being pushed beyond breaking point as her director, Leroy, bullies her into giving an outstanding performance. Yet again, the viewer is led to believe that high achievement can only be reached via punishing severity.

In fact, this classic narrative of motivation — of a genius being driven by a harsh outer or inner critic, whether that’s a volatile teacher or an insatiable internal voice — is one that we are all too familiar with in our culture. Yet is it actually true or just a myth? And if it is a myth, could it have done a lot of damage to our understanding of what drives us? In other words, could Andrew and Nina have got the same results with kindness instead of cruelty (and without the high cost to their wellbeing)?

Nowadays, many researchers would answer ‘yes’. This is because various psychological studies have challenged cliched beliefs about motivation, instead asking: when it comes to success, what is actually the key driver? The gentle teacher or the tempramental maestro? Self-criticism or self-compassion? And if it is indeed self-compassion, then how can we apply that knowledge to our own lives, whether it is our career, education or creative pursuits?

In other words, if self-kindness is actually the key to motivation, then how can we learn to practice it consistently as a means to achieving our dreams?

What is motivation?

Let’s start by looking at what we mean when we say ‘motivation’. In essence, it can simply be described as the driving force behind your actions — the social, emotional, biological and cognitive reasons why you do a particular thing, from making a cup of coffee to studying for a PhD.

Yet many of us know that motivation is no simple thing. For instance, have you ever had to do something crucial (like completing a report), but totally lacked the motivation? Or have you ever found yourself sabotaging an opportunity through procrastination, absent mindedness or distractedness? If so, then you will know that at best this is frustrating and at worst, it can lead to a nagging, almost hopeless sense that you are not living out your full potential.

With this being the case, how can we best tap into or ‘hack’ the process of motivation, ensuring that we are consistently moving towards our goals instead of being stuck in a limbo of inaction? A good starting point would be to understand the neurobiology behind the whole process and the differing states that we are in when we’re being self-compassionate versus self-critical.

Interestingly, when you act kindly towards yourself or practice self-soothing activities such as wrapping yourself up in a cosy blanket, the feelgood chemical oxytocin is produced, creating feelings of warmth and love. Oxytocin also reduces stress and anxiety which in turn can enhance your focus, allowing you to complete tasks without feeling worried, aggravated or triggered.

Alternatively, when you are in self-critical mode and feeling, for instance, that you are a ‘failure’ or somehow ‘not good enough’, your fight/flight threat response system can become activated. This can cause you to want to disengage, hide from the world, do minimal activity or numb painful feelings with food, TV and alcohol. As you might imagine, this can have a hugely negative effect on plans and goals, causing you to miss a work deadline, avoid studying for an exam or give up on writing that chapter of a novel.

While motivation is complicated — and there is an argument to be made that the adrenaline rush of fight/flight mode can sometimes propel action and even success — it also seems clear that self-criticism can have a disastrous effect on drive. And in the long term, it could undermine your most important life dreams, while self-compassion could actually help to foster them.

But with this in mind, what exactly is ‘self-compassion’?

Self-compassion versus self-criticism in motivation

According to Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in the area and author of the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, it is really about various habits, practices and mindsets that you can learn.

This includes self-kindness, in other words, avoiding self-judgement and trying to show yourself the same understanding for any wrong actions, failures and weaknesses that a good friend would. It also includes the ability to comfort and self-soothe yourself when you are feeling down or distressed.

Neff also points out the importance of remembering you are not alone in the world — that you are part of a shared human experience where everyone makes mistakes, that you’re not the only person who sometimes feels like a failure and that ‘negative’ emotions are totally normal. And finally, she emphasises the importance of stepping back and learning to observe your feelings in a mindful way, without getting too caught up in them. Together, according to Neff, these concepts of self-kindness, self-soothing, shared humanity and mindfulness all make up self-compassion.

But while this all might sound warm, fuzzy and encouraging, what does it have to do with being motivated to achieve your goals?

Quite a lot, it would seem. Because over the past decade or so, a number of studies have shown that there is a powerful relationship between motivation and self-compassion.

For instance, in 2012, the University of California, Berkeley carried out a number of experiments in this area. In one, participants were set a difficult and frustrating test. At the end of it, some participants were given a kind and encouraging written message reassuring them that many people found the test difficult, while others did not get the message. It was found that the former group were more motivated to improve their performance in the test and had a more optimistic mindset overall, indicating that kind encouragement could be a driver of success.

Yet perhaps this principle just applies to academia? What about the more physically challenging world of sport — could harsh, exacting self-criticism actually be effective in that arena? Again, research into sports psychology would suggest not. For instance, a 2011 study by Powers found that self-criticism negatively affected motivation and progress towards goals, while a 2014 study by Ferguson found that it was causing some athletes to give up on their careers altogether.

Yet if self-compassion can improve motivation, commitment and even achievement, then why are so many of us so reluctant to practice it? Why does something that sounds so positive feel so risky? And why do we so often choose the default setting of being hard on ourselves instead? According to Neff, many people don’t practice self-compassion simply because they are afraid to. They have the idea that if they start being kind, gentle and understanding towards themselves, then they will become ‘lazy’ and ‘self-indulgent’, losing their motivation altogether:

‘The number-one reason people give for why they aren’t more self-compassionate is the fear that they will be too easy on themselves. Without constant self-criticism to spur myself on, people worry, won’t I just skip work, eat three tubs of ice cream and watch Oprah reruns all day? In other words, isn’t self-compassion really the same thing as self-indulgence?’

However, she points out that the opposite is probably true:

‘There is an ever-increasing body of research that attests to the motivational power of self-compassion. Self-compassionate people set high standards for themselves, but they aren’t as upset when they don’t meet their goals. Instead, research shows that they’re more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration and disappointment...self-compassion is not the same as being easy on ourselves. It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.’

Sadly, many of us believe that if we become our own harshest judge, then we will somehow work harder, do better and achieve more. Yet studies have shown that a harsh self-critic could actually negatively affect our performance and focus, leading to paralysis and procrastination. And in the long term, this critical voice can also result in anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. This is because, as far as the inner critic is concerned, we are never quite good enough — it is always creating new goalposts and is rarely ever satisfied.

Why self-criticism can lead to self-sabotage

In fact, sometimes we might become so afraid of failure (and the inner critic’s resulting wrath) that we ‘self-handicap’ by not trying hard enough, or by procrastinating, or by ‘forgetting’ to meet an important deadline. In the words of Neff:

‘Research indicates that self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals because of these sorts of self-handicapping strategies…so, instead of being a useful motivational tool, self-criticism may actually cause us to shoot ourselves in the foot.’

This backed up by a 2020 Iowa State University study which looked at 'self-handicapping' behaviours in students, finding that both procrastination and alcohol played a role:

‘For example, a student may put off studying for an exam or drink the night before the exam, and when they fail or do worse than desired in the exam, they could say “It is because I didn’t study, I am still a smart person” or “I failed because I still had a hangover during the exam, I can totally get a good score if I want to” a result, this student can maintain a positive view of his or her ability regardless of his or her true academic performance.’

In short, research indicates that the inner critic might actually cause a lot more self-sabotage than success. With its constant refrain of ‘you have to do better’ it can pass itself off as a powerful motivator, but in actual fact, it could simply be generating more fear and anxiety than achievement. So much so that it could be argued that when do achieve things it is despite this critical voice, not because of it.

Why do we struggle with self-compassion?

Yet what does all this mean in a practical sense? If we’re used to letting the inner critic run the show then how can we begin to turn this around and move towards our goals with self-compassion?

Like anything, it takes practice. And it might be helpful to think of self-compassion as less of an inner trait that some people have while others don’t, and instead, as a skill that you can develop.

Yet many people can struggle with developing this skill, for a whole host of reasons. These can include cultural and social media messages around the need to be ‘perfect,’ or being surrounded by people who don’t model self-kindness to you.

A lack of self-compassion can also be linked to difficult childhood experiences such as the trauma caused by different types of abuse or neglect — for example an insecure attachment style caused by emotionally distant parents, or abandonment by a caregiver. Bullying at school or harsh words from teachers can also do a lot of harm. In fact, these childhood stressors and shaming experiences can all lead to having an out of control inner critic that continually condemns you for not being ‘worthy enough’, ‘perfect enough’ or ‘good enough’.

Therapies for developing self-compassion

With this in mind, sometimes a good way to start on the path to self-compassion is by seeing a therapist. Depending on their approach, a therapist can help you to learn how to tame the inner critic, practice self-kindness and learn techniques for self-soothing and mindfulness. They can also help you to see how your early childhood experiences might have made it difficult for you to be kind towards yourself and may be causing you to lack motivation or self-sabotage.

Of course, all therapies should ideally have self-compassion as a core value and goal. Yet if you would like to better understand the relationship between self-compassion and self-motivation, a few approaches can be particularly helpful.

One is Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), which aims to help people who struggle with shame and self-criticism. It does so by bringing your internal forces of kindness, self-criticism and drive (motivation) into balance with each other, so that they are in harmony rather than conflict.

Another approach is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which uses mindfulness skills to help you embrace every part of yourself, while also facing problems and obligations instead of avoiding them. Additionally, Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) can help you to update the negative messages you might have developed about yourself after difficult experiences. Finally, Mindfulness can equip you with various practices to help shrink the part of your brain associated with stress, meaning you can approach your goals from a calmer, more focused state.

You might also find MTA’s blog post on freeing yourself from self-criticism to be useful, as well as the blog post by one of our therapists Sue Winter on activating your self-soothing system. Additionally, this TED Talk by Kristin Neff is very illuminating.

In our culture, there is a deeply ingrained belief that being hard on yourself is the only road to achieving your goals and that you must somehow be your own toughest taskmaster. And while it’s true that self-discipline, self-denial and accountability can all be positive things (within reason), it’s also true that when this tips into harsh self-criticism, it can be counterproductive. In fact, an out of control inner critic can often do more harm than good, causing us to avoid pursuing our most important dreams for fear of feeling like a failure.

This is why self-compassion is so crucial. Rather than a kind inner voice making us more lazy or complacent, research indicates that it could be the secret to success. This is because self-compassion can help us to create a safe, focused, calm inner space where we can complete tasks, face challenges and manage setbacks.

In the words of Kristin Neff again, ‘Self-compassion recognises that failure is not only inevitable, but it’s also our best teacher, something to be explored rather than avoided at all costs...we can then work on improving ourselves, not because we’re unacceptable as we are, but because we want to thrive and be happy.’

Struggling with motivation, self-criticism or self-sabotage? An MTA therapist can help you find a way forward. Why not book an in-person, video or live chat appointment today?

The secret to achieving your dreams and goals? Practice self-compassion
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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