A Psychologist Explains How To Be Compassionate To Yourself When Life Gets Hard

Here's what to do when your inner critic won't be quiet.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 15, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that showing yourself compassion might be the most adaptive way to cope with setbacks. The research shows that this approach is often more effective than its antipode: being unnecessarily hard on yourself.

The research project began when psychologist and lead author of the paper Christina Chwyl, of Drexel University, began pondering why people can simultaneously be so kind to others yet cruel to themselves.

"This observation led to my fascination with self-compassion, which fundamentally entails extending to ourselves the same kindness and care that we often extend to loved ones," she explains.

Self-compassion, according to Chwyl, can be broken down into three components:

  1. Noticing when we are in pain (without either detaching from or getting caught up in our feelings)
  2. Realizing that experiencing distress or making mistakes is part of being human (as opposed to feeling isolated by these experiences)
  3. Offering ourselves kindness (as opposed to being harshly self-critical)

Chwyl and colleagues Patricia Chen and Jamil Zaki investigated beliefs that were preventing people from developing self-compassion.

"Many of us grow up learning that we need harsh self-criticism to light a fire under us. We may come to believe that self-compassion is self-indulgent, lazy, selfish, or will fundamentally undermine our motivation," Chwyl explains.

Their study measured these beliefs and how they affected peoples' practice of self-compassion and coping mechanisms via a questionnaire.

The results showed that people who had a more positive view of self-compassion were, not surprisingly, more likely to practice self-compassion. These individuals were also better at coping in healthy, adaptive ways.

"Our research echoes what studies have found time and time again — self-compassion not only feels better than harsh self-criticism, but it works better too, helping us rise to life's inevitable challenges," says Chwyl.

To explain why self-compassion helps us respond more effectively to difficult situations, Chwyl offers the following analogy. She asks us to imagine a child coming home after failing a math examination. In such a situation, a harshly self-critical parent may punish or chastise the child while a compassionate parent might validate the child's feelings and try to support her.

"It's clear from this example which approach would lead a child to pursue math long-term," she says. "Sure, the child treated critically may study harder for a short while, but they are unlikely to be motivated to continue pursuing math courses, may hide future grades from their parents, and may feel embarrassed about their abilities moving forward."

By the same token, when we are compassionate with ourselves, we give ourselves the time and space to react rationally to setbacks and react in more adaptive ways. It is because of this that Chwyl posits that self-compassion is a "motivational supercharger" that can help us:

  1. Fight procrastination
  2. Make amends following transgressions
  3. And, work harder following setbacks

If you struggle to be compassionate with yourself, Chwyl prescribes a two-step process to get you back on track:

  1. Take stock of your beliefs about self-compassion. Get curious about your relationship with self-compassion, and notice whatever shows up for you, without judgment. Awareness is a huge stride towards cultivating greater self-compassion.
  2. Start practicing. Self-compassion is like a muscle — the more we practice it, the stronger it gets. Just like exercise, self-compassion can initially feel difficult or even painful for some. And, just like exercise, it can be difficult to carve out the time, even though the benefits outweigh the inconveniences.

Finally, Chwyl also recommends exploring self-compassion with the support of a therapist.

A full interview with Christine Chwyl discussing her new research can be found here: Do you give yourself the kindness you give to others?