Self-compassion is more valuable than self-criticism


One of my HS yearbook quotes was “The unexamined life is not worth living,” which appears to be from Socrates. (I think one of my other quotes was from Phish, if you want an idea of the type of person I probably was in high school.) I’m a pretty self-critical person in general — if you want an idea around that, look at this post — and I have been for a long time. It’s probably more low self-esteem; if I was truly self-critical and it was going anywhere, I probably would have made a few drastic changes to my life by this point. (I’ve made some, yes, but I still have a ways to go on the “really being an adult” contextual scale, I’d auger.) A lot of times when a year flips, there’s a ton of different content out there around motivations and habits and priorities and resolutions, and I just found something new-ish on the TED blog. It makes a lot of points about a lot of different topics, but one stood out more than everything: self-compassion is more valuable than self-criticism. 

Here’s the TED Talk this nugget comes from:

And here’s the analysis of that TED Talk by Kelly McGonigal, who writes books and teaches at Stanford:

There are two things she said that really stood out to me, and that I agree with very seriously. One was that she talked about the importance of being kind to yourself. She made the point that self-compassion is much more motivating than self-criticism. That’s very important. When I first started teaching the Science of Willpower, it was the thing nobody believed — researchers and psychologists and writers have done a great job of getting this message out, because I don’t get near the resistance I used to get to the idea. And still, it’s so amazing how many people believe that they are more motivated by self-criticism and shame than anything else. They aren’t really paying attention to the effect on their behavior and choices when they are that hard on themselves.

This is interesting. I grew up mostly thinking that self-criticism was the way to go in terms of motivation: look at yourself, look at where you’re coming up short, and figure out a way to close that gap. Over time, I kind of adjusted that — when I was teaching in the inner city with Teach for America, for example, I used to keep this journal where I wrote down “3 Good Things” and “3 Bad Things” from every day. That meant, at the end of a given week, I had 15 positive and 15 things to work on. If I saw different “things to work on” over time, I knew I was making some progress. But including that “good” column meant I was practicing self-compassion and self-criticism.

There’s an argument out there — probably more common among men — that self-compassion is more of a “soft” idea. If you’re too kind to yourself, you’ll probably shirk your real goals, or create ideas/concepts around why you can’t reach them. I could see that potentially being true. If you want to really be nice to yourself, you can get to a place where you find excuses for the harder goals and justify that as “Well, I’m practicing self-compassion.”

But criticism takes time and takes stress and takes effort on your brain; compassion, as a word and an actual idea, is much smoother.

We know that leadership is more effective when it’s rooted in empathy, which is a word closely connected to compassion. When leadership operates devoid of respect, it tends to fail and alienate.

Seems like ideas around compassion and empathy > ideas around criticism and rushed, lacking-respect interactions — both in terms of looking at yourself and looking at others.

There’s another interesting part to the TED post, but this part is from McGonigal herself:

It’s funny how this happens sometimes even when we go after the things that really are core to our identity. I did this New Year’s resolution makeover once with this woman who had made the same resolution year after year to become a better cook, because she thought that’s what good moms and good wives did. She was a terrible cook, and she didn’t want to learn how to cook. That’s a mistake people make, is they think they’re just going to fundamentally change who they are with a resolution. “I’m going to become a morning person.” “I’m going to become a health nut.” “I’m going to become organized.” The best resolutions are ones that strengthen something you already are, but you may not have been fully investing in.

Resolutions = you can’t fundamentally change who you are. Rather, you can strengthen something you already are but weren’t fully investing in.

That’s cool and interesting.

So I’m thinking about my own life right now and some of my resolutions. I definitely would like to lose some weight this year, and just generally be better about getting fit/working out/not drinking as much/participating in some activities. I think this is a part of me — so it’s not a fundamental change — but I need to strengthen it, and I need to do it with self-compassion and micro steps. For example, right now I’m thinking:

  • Start finally going to this Wednesday night social run club (this month)
  • Do Pilates for back (this month)
  • Go to gym 3-4 times on weekdays (so far so good this week)
  • Do 1 long run on weekends (can start this weekend!)
  • Try to drink only once-twice a week (harder, but I can get there)

As for why the willpower battle is such a struggle, there’s an answer for that too — and it turns out it’s the crux of modern neuroscience:

It’s a great question. I define willpower as the ability to do what matters most, even when it’s difficult or when some part of you doesn’t want to. That begins to capture why it’s so difficult — because everything we think of as requiring willpower is usually a competition between two conflicting selves. There’s a part of you who is looking to the long-term and thinking about certain goals, and then another part of you that has a completely different agenda and wants to maximize current pleasure and minimize current stress, pain and discomfort. The things that require willpower pit those competing selves against each other. Willpower is the ability to align yourself with the brain system that is thinking about long-term goals — that is thinking about big values rather than short-term needs or desires.

The reason that so many things can trigger that kind of conflict is because that’s the essence of human nature. Modern cognitive neuroscientists see this as the fundamental structure of the human brain — that there are competing systems that think about the world differently and that respond to challenges differently. I think of it as: the immediate self versus the future self. We need both systems for survival. But a lot of our modern challenges really tempt us to be in the mind-state of immediate gratification, or escaping immediate discomfort. It can be quite a challenge to access the part of you who is willing to take that big picture and tolerate temporary discomfort.

Here’s a McGonigal TED Talk, for context:

I went all over the place with this post, because initially I was just going to talk about being compassionate with your self, but now I’m all down here talking about drinking less and planking at the gym more … but I think it’s still kind of interesting. Remember:

  • Treat yourself with compassion and empathy.
  • Make resolutions that trigger parts of yourself as opposed to fundamentally changing yourself.
  • Remember that any struggle you have with willpower or optimization is a fundamental human struggle.
  • Do the best you can and put yourself out there a little bit and hopefully you’ll continue to grow.

That’s the point of all this, right?



Ted Bauer


  1. This post resonates with me. Another thing about self-criticism: it’s really, really irritating to be around and probably squashes any collaborative instinct because no one wants to try new things with you. I spent the first two thirds of my clinical internship (which involves 50 hours a week of one-on-one training with a single midwife) consistently pointing out my every shortfall, a tendency I thought showed my dedication to excellence. Any compliment my preceptor made, I would retort, “Yes, but I forgot to X” or “Thanks, I’ll keep working on YZ though.” At one point, around 3 in the morning, she complimented me on a nice birth, and I was like, “Seriously?!? I made such a mess on the floor!” and she was like, “You literally did 300 things correctly in order to deliver that baby safely. Why do you always focus on the one you messed up?” Anyway, I realized at that moment that I was a TOTAL FUCKING DRAG. Don’t be a total fucking drag. Anyway. I like this post.

  2. It seems so much easier to practice compassion for my students than for myself or even other adults. I often talk to my students about empathizing with characters in texts. some kids tend to jump to snap judgments about whether characters’ behavior is “good” or “evil”, which tends to leave out much if the complexity of a text. (There’s probably a parallel there, when it comes to human relationships.) I try to remember that many students who seem harsh and judgmental of others are echoing the critical voices they’ve heard (from parents, peers, and in their own minds).

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the new year. What if I approached other people, and myself, with the same level of compassion and empathy I feel for my kids? What greater depth could I find in all my interactions? How much better would my life be on a daily basis? Nice post.

  3. Effective change is the product of persistence not passion. Action not intention. A consistent one degree change daily will turn your life around more profoundly than trying a more dramatic change you can’t maintain.

    • Google my name and “Will Smith treadmill theory” then read that one.

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