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Self compassion as a motivator

Self compassion as a motivator

Whenever I bring up self compassion to my clients, I’m usually met with some skepticism or resistance. When I talk about how showing yourself unconditional love and understanding can actually help motivate you to get things done, people are a little hesitant to believe me.  They might believe that accepting yourself will lead to stagnation or a lack of motivation. They might feel like it would be naive to show yourself kindness and understanding when you feel like you don’t deserve it. 

Before we go in to how self compassion can help motivate you to take positive action towards your life, let’s first learn about what self compassion is.  What does it mean to treat ourselves with self-compassion? Dr. Kristin Neff has dedicated her career to studying self-compassion, and here are the three key elements she describes as self compassion.

1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgment

Self-compassion means choosing to be kind and comforting to ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate, rather than avoiding our emotions, being mean to ourselves or judging ourselves harshly for our mistakes. 

2. Common humanity vs. Isolation

The recognition that feeling inadequate, making mistakes, and imperfections are a shared human experience, and are feelings that all humans feel at some point, instead of feeling totally alone in the feeling.

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

Self-compassion also recognizes that utilizing mindfulness over our feelings, acknowledging them without judgment and showing compassion towards our feelings. 

As a society, we’re so used to tough love as a motivating force for change. Just think about how kids are motivated in sports. The coaches yell and express harsh criticism towards the kids who are not performing well enough. A lot of the motivating force for the kids to change and do better ends up coming from their fear of being ridiculed or shamed. When motivation comes from some fear ultimately we won’t be able to sustain it. When someone is under pressure for an extended period of time it can lead to burnout. You might think that avoiding those harsh reactions is so strong that it could actually help performance and improvement, but what happens is we might feel overwhelmed by the task and then avoid the task completely to avoid the negative reaction. To fail the task would be a lot more difficult to manage emotionally, than to try and face the risk of a negative reaction. 

The same process goes on internally when we try to motivate ourselves using our self talk. If the motivation to act comes from wanting to avoid a harsh negative statement towards ourselves. For example, what’s the first thing that goes on in your mind when you start slacking at work and need a boost of motivation? Do you beat yourself up about it? Do you tell yourself that you’re a horrible worker? Those thoughts, the inner criticism, might come from an intention of trying to motivate, however what it does in reality is decrease your mood and incite shame. By using self compassionate self talk as a motivator, we acknowledge our shortcomings, but also speak kindly to ourselves. Self compassionate self talk allows us to release shame and judgment, which can increase our mood and likelihood to be in the mindset to perform our tasks at hand. This can be especially helpful when we are procrastinating a difficult task. We would be less likely to avoid a task if our self talk was kind and understanding instead of harsh and judgmental. 

We’re also allowed to be critical of ourselves while using self compassion. Self compassion does not have to mean that we are naïve to our shortcomings or our failures or imperfections. Self compassion recognizes the universality of failure and imperfection, and actually brings awareness to our shortcomings in a way that is more digestible. If I’m telling myself I’m horrible at my job and not doing a good job in my task criticizing myself in my head and believing that I’m the only one that experiences it and comparing myself to other people who are perfect or the idea of perfect, I’m less likely to continue working or trying to do better I’m going to feel overwhelmed and discouraged by that thought. But with self compassion I could recognize that I might not be doing the best at my job but knowing that these are feelings that universally all humans feel. Next time you’re treating yourself harshly in your mind, and worried about meeting the next deadline, try speaking to yourself compassionately to help assist you in accomplishing your next task.

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