Happy New Year!
I really do wish you all a wonderful, happy, healthy and peaceful year.
I think most of us will have started out 2017 (Twenty Seventeen! How on earth did that happen when it was Twenty Twelve, precisely… what…. twelve weeks ago?!) by making the annual list of new year resolutions – changes we want to implement in order to be happier, healthier, more successful… in short, better.
Old favourites are things such as eating more healthily or eating less, volunteering more often, learning a new skill, joining classes and so on.
But, as with every other year, by the time you read this post, the chances are you will have already failed. In January we find it easier to get back on the wagon, but as we reach the end of the month and fail a few more times, we will typically give up the right and regress back to our old habits.
Why do so many of us find it so terribly difficult to stick to resolutions that require us to make effective or lasting changes, even when we have wanted to make these changes for a long time and know they’ll be ‘good’ for us?
At this point I have already failed on my resolution list, and one thing that brings comfort is that I know I’m far from alone in that. But instead of comparing myself to others who have similarly failed, should I be comforting myself in another way?
I would attest to having a huge problem in sticking to resolutions. But I would also now acknowledge that the problem isn’t just that I’ve tried and failed, but how we treat and judge ourselves, and what our inner voice tells us, when we fail.
I recently went on a course that focussed heavily on self-compassion, and was introduced to lots of research that demonstrates that how we relate to personal failures (with kindness and understanding or with harsh self-judgment) is crucially important in determining how resilient we are.
From nursery school, we are all coached in how to succeed, to be the winner or the ‘best’ but we aren’t generally taught how to fail successfully so that we can grow to our fullest potential and be our most content and happy.
I sound a bit fluffy, like one of those people who believe that no child should be deemed the ‘winner’ for coming first in the egg-and-spoon race at sports day, and instead every child given a medal for participation. I actually don’t support that. Winners should be celebrated, but we will all fail continuously throughout life so we also need to foster skills that help us turn failures into wins and the best way to do this isn’t through brutality.
It is proven that one of the best ways to deal with failure is to have self-compassion.
The Truth About Self-Compassion
I was taught that self-compassion has three main components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness refers to the act of being caring, understanding, and supportive toward ourselves when we fail at anything or make a mistake, instead of being, often instinctively, harshly critical or judgmental towards ourselves and our wrongdoings.
Common humanity is the recognition and understanding that all humans are imperfect, and that to expect perfection is to invite misery. Common humanity is also connecting our own, undoubtedly flawed, condition to the shared human condition of everyone we share the world with, so we can have a much greater perspective of our shortcomings and the shortcomings of our friends, family, and everyone we come into contact with.
Mindfulness involves being fully aware of the pain associated with failure in a clear and balanced manner so that we neither ignore nor obsess about our faults, instead we merely notice how we feel now, the effects on our body and breathing, and just ‘sit with it’ without trying to swallow our emotions, change our breathing or feelings or avoiding being fully connected to our own bodies, feelings, and minds. Mindfulness is a vitally important component of true self compassion with so much incredible research showing that self-compassion results in greater emotional wellbeing.
Studies have consistently proven that greater self-compassion is linked to greater lives for us and those around us and less depression, anxiety and stress.
It is unsurprising that self-compassion appears to enhance positive mind states such as optimism, gratitude, and curiosity. When we meet our own suffering with the warm embrace of self-compassion, as we would with a friend, positive feelings such as happiness are generated at the same time that negative emotions are alleviated. By reducing the negative, we increase the positive emotions and vice versa.
Self-compassion has been found to be an integral source of coping and resilience in the face of a variety of common and debilitating life stressors such as divorce, illness, bereavement, unemployment.
The three components combine to create the ideal self-compassionate mind-frame.
Self-Compassion Increases Motivation
Many of us believe self compassion will make us lazy or less motivated but there’s an ever-growing body of research that indicates that self-compassion is actually linked to greater motivation, rather than less. In many studies, self-compassion has been associated with increased personal initiative and desire to reach one’s full potential, as well as an increase in behaviours that support personal growth.
Self-compassionate people are also more likely to work on Eulogy attributes, rather than CV attributes. They are more likely to adopt ‘mastery goals’, and focus on learning and mastering material and new skills to increase competence or improve negative aspects or positive aspects of their personality (in short become a better person) and are much less likely to adopt “performance goals,” which are primarily concerned with material success or making a favourable impression on others and impressing people with status and material wealth.
Studies have shown that, perhaps unexpectedly, very self-compassionate people have performance standards that are every bit as high, if not higher, than those who are harshly self-critical and extremely judgemental of their flaws and faults. The difference isn’t in ambition, purely that they don’t get as upset when they don’t reach their goals but that doesn’t prevent them from trying to achieve their goals and fulfil dreams.
As a result, self-compassionate people have significantly less performance anxiety and engage in far fewer self-defeating behaviours such as procrastination, which I know is the bane of so many people’s productive lives, including mine and my friends and family.
So, self-compassionate people much less likely to fear failure which can make them almost fearless in trying again, when they don’t succeed the first, second or tenth time.
A series of interesting experiments conducted by psychologists Juliana Breines and Serena Chen from the highly-regarded University of California at Berkeley, examined whether helping undergraduate students to be more self-compassionate would impact upon their motivation to change.
In one study, participants were asked to recall a recent action they felt guilty about – cheating on an exam, lying to a romantic partner, saying something harmful, etc. –– something that still made them feel bad about themselves when they thought about it.
After they’d decided on their guilt-inducing infraction, they were randomly assigned to one of three conditions. In the self-compassion condition, participants were instructed to write to themselves for three minutes from the perspective of a loving, kind, compassionate and understanding friend. To speak to themselves through writing in the manner that they’d speak to someone they loved and wanted to approach with compassion.
The second condition had people write as extensively as they could about all their positive qualities, attributes or achievements.
The final group were asked to write about a hobby they thoroughly enjoyed.
These two control conditions allowed the scientists to differentiate self-compassion from positive self-talk and general positive mood, that was likely to be induced from writing about positive attributes or hobbies.
The researchers discovered that participants who were helped to be self-compassionate about their recent transgressions reported being more motivated to make amends and more committed to not repeating the behaviour in future, than those in the two control conditions.
Kindness Increases Motivation
In another study conducted by the same researchers from Berkeley, whether self-compassion would directly translate into greater efforts to learn, improve or overcome the experience of failure was explored, with pleasing and encouraging results.
Students were given an extremely challenging vocabulary test they all had difficulty completing and scored very poorly on.
One group of students were given an instruction to be self-compassionate about their failure. They were provided with an instruction that said,
“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.”
Another group was given a written self-esteem boost, with a note that said;
“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, try not to feel bad about yourself — you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley!”
The final group of participants were given no encouragement or additional instructions whatsoever.
Following the instructions (or lack of for the third group) all students were then informed of an impending second vocabulary test. They were provided with a list of words and definitions they could study for as long as they wanted before attempting the repeat test.
In this trial, study time was used as a measure of improvement in motivation.
The students who were told to be self-compassionate after failing the first test spent more time studying than the participants in the other two conditions and thus, study time was linked to how well participants actually performed on the test.
This test shows how self-compassion can aid resilience and help motivate you to do better and so become a higher achiever.
These findings are evidence that self-kindness and compassion when you fail or make mistakes, gives you the emotional support needed to continue to try your best to improve, and to overcome obstacles even when discouraged by previous results .
Kindness can be converted into the most powerful fuel to drive us to keep going after minor or epic failures.
So, with all this in mind, I’ve decided to show myself some self-compassion regarding the fact that I have failed to abide by my resolutions to post religiously on Mindfood Magpie. Instead of listening to the voice that goaded me with, “you aren’t good at blogging… You aren’t cut out for this… you’ll never finish that post… nobody is going to confirm their interviews…”, I gave myself positive affirmations surrounding blogging, similar to the statements the students were given in the self-compassion test conditions.
And guess what? I have actually become more motivated to write what I can, without being critical that I’ve not written enough, and it turns out that since I treated myself with compassion, I have managed to compose more posts in a shorter time-frame than ever before.
The moral of this tale?
Is that when you make and inevitably break your resolutions, instead of giving yourself a hard time before ultimately deciding to give up completely, try being as kind as possible to yourself.
Sounds counter productive but as the studies, and my utterly unscientific anecdote show… in the long run you’ll be more likely to succeed.
My only wish is that you don’t become too good at converting self compassion into giving up procrastination completely – because then we will never see you passing time by roaming around this blog again – and an empty Magpie Nest would be yet another New Year’s Resolution failure!