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Self-Criticism or Self-Compassion – Which is Better for Achieving Goals?

Nov 17, 2021

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Demoralizing whip

What kind of mood will the following words leave you with: “You are lazy; you are not good for anything”? Do you feel a surge of strength, inspiration, or are you ready to conquer the world after that? That is very unlikely.

In most life situations, we need to be calm and feel confident in order to show what we are truly capable of.

This is how we most often motivate children: we say that we believe in them, that we are always ready to support them; we praise their successes and try not to notice failures. But concerning ourselves, we act in exactly the opposite way.

Motivation researchers emphasize that self-confidence is critical to achieving goals.

This is confirmed by the following experiment: researchers observed two hundred schoolchildren involved in wrestling. It turned out that those of them who were confident won more fights than doubters.

Why do we criticize ourselves?

And yet, to a certain extent, self-criticism is effective – otherwise, why do people use it for centuries in relation to themselves? The answer is fear.

Not wanting to listen to the reproaches of conscience and expecting the worst punishment, we are ready to do everything to avoid this. But this approach has significant drawbacks:

1. Anxiety kills performance

Fear of public speaking, fear of the next test or check-point, fear of doing something wrong – all this forces us to concentrate on the feeling of anxiety, and not on the process itself. As a result, we cannot show everything that we are capable of.

2. Fear makes you resort to psychological tricks

One of the most popular techniques is self-obstruction – when we deliberately interfere with ourselves so that luck becomes less likely. For example, we postpone training until later in order to explain our loss by the lack of preparation.

People, who often criticize themselves, are less likely to achieve goals due to self-obstruction.

Another trick in this series is procrastination. If I don’t complete a job assignment, which I only started doing at the last minute, I’ll be able to associate my failure with a lack of time, and not with my own incompetence.

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What can help?

Psychologists offer another tool for motivation – self-compassion, that is, the ability to feel sorry for and accept yourself, as well as to treat yourself with kindness.

Self-compassion works because its driving force is not fear, but love. Love provides confidence and a sense of security (also due to increased levels of oxytocin chemical in our blood), while fear inspires uncertainty and anxiety (filling the body with cortisol – a hormone of stress). When we firmly know that in case of failure we will treat ourselves with understanding and compassion, then we are not worried and can perform to the best of our abilities.

Many people are afraid to be too kind to themselves because they believe that this leads to excessive connivance. If I’m good enough anyway, why change? But there is an important difference here. Self-compassionate people constantly wonder what is good for them. Their motivation is driven by the desire to develop and learn new things, and not to avoid punishment or earn praise.

If we want our own good, we need to clearly see where we are hurting ourselves, and understand how we can help ourselves.

In addition, research has shown that when a self-compassionate person has to give up on a goal, they tend to switch to another goal. While a person who criticizes himself, in the same situation, most often capitulates.

Practical advice

Here’s a simple 3-step exercise psychologists use to change their patients’ behavior from self-condemnation to self-empathy.

  1. With self-criticism, what are your motivational goals? Do you have particular characteristics for which you criticize yourself (for example, a tendency to become discouraged, lazy, overweight, etc.)? Try to feel all the pain that self-criticism causes.
  2. Come up with a more gentle way to push yourself to change. What would a wise, caring friend, parent, teacher, or mentor motivate you with? What words would support you the most?
  3. Every time you catch yourself in self-condemnation, remember these remarks and mentally pronounce them.

Trying to move towards your goals does not have to be demanding and cruel. Kindness and support evoke a much more powerful response within us and ultimately help us achieve better results.

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