I’ve been a runner for over 20 years. Here’s a confession: for most of that time, when I struggled on a course – breathing so hard I worried I might faint, hurting and wanting to give up – I’d say terrible things to myself.
Giving up is weak. Come on, just do it! Don’t be lazy!
Why was I being so mean to myself? Partly because I felt sure that beating myself up was the best way to get motivated. It was what I’d always done, and what I had always known.
It was also how I handled mistakes – ones I couldn’t avoid, and those I could.
No longer. I’ve discovered a practice that has changed my life, and many others: self-compassion. Psychologist Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas at Austin, says self-compassion has three components:
- Self-kindness: approaching yourself in a soothing, comforting way. Talking to yourself the way a close friend might talk to you in this difficult situation.
- A sense of common humanity: recognizing that all humans are imperfect and make mistakes. Rather than deciding you are the only person who is struggling (a common reaction that leads to isolation and shame), you connect your own experience with countless others who have struggled before you, or who struggle now.
- Mindfulness: naming how you think and feel right now, in the present moment. You don’t deny what’s happening, but you don’t blow it out of proportion, or ruminate (overthink) about it endlessly.
When I teach these three steps to girls, I occasionally get the fish eye. One, a sophomore at Princeton University, put it best:
“So you’re saying I should be nice to myself?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“Wouldn’t that mean I’d sit in my room all day watching Netflix?” she said. The other students laughed.
I used to agree with her. But here’s the thing: self-compassion doesn’t extinguish motivation. In fact, research has shown that it invigorates the desire to make important changes in your life. Even more important, self-compassion tends to be found in people who have “mastery goals,” or an intrinsic drive to learn (the best kind of drive, and the one most strongly associated with well-being and lasting success).
Researchers are discovering that self-compassion is even healthier for kids than self-esteem. A host of studies have found that that self-esteem isn’t the golden goose psychologists and parents once believed it was. High self-esteem is associated with narcissism, which involves selfishness, grandiosity, and a hunger for the approval of others. People with high self-esteem tend to compare themselves to others. Many need to feel better than or superior to others, just to feel good about themselves.
Not so with self-compassion. In fact, self-compassion confers many of the benefits of self-esteem, without the bad side effects. Self-compassion is strongly associated with psychological well-being and is linked to increased feelings of happiness, connectedness, optimism, and curiosity as well as decreased anxiety, depression, rumination and fear of failure. It also doesn’t involve the self-evaluation (“Am I good enough at this sport/ class/ social media post?”) that characterizes the drive for self-esteem.
Here are the reasons girls in particular can benefit enormously from the practice of self-compassion:
Girls tend to ruminate about their problems. Rumination is defined as repetitively thinking about the causes and consequences of a problem, instead of a solution. Ruminating is associated with anxiety and depression, and a decrease in problem solving abilities. Practicing mindfulness stops the cycle of ruminating and pulls girls into the present moment.
Girls tend to feel more shame than boys. Shame is the feeling that you’re a bad person (as opposed to guilt, the feeling that you’ve done a bad thing). When girls feel like a bad person, two things happen: they tend to isolate themselves from others, and they believe they are uniquely messed up or bad. The third step of self-compassion – connecting with common humanity — can dislodge girls from shame by helping them resist the urge to isolate. Mindfulness discourages catastrophizing thoughts, like “I’m the worst person,” by pushing girls to stick with what’s true in the present moment.
Social media encourages self-judgment and FOMO in girls. Girls dominate on social media, and sites like Instagram and Facebook pressure users to beautify their lives in ways that usually don’t reflect real life. This activates girls’ self-judgment, along with FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO is not only about wanting to be somewhere you’re not; it’s also implied that where you currently are isn’t good enough. All of this can lead to a sense of loneliness – of disconnection from common humanity – which self-compassion can help restore.
Girls often interpret and respond to failure in self-destructive ways. Studies have found significant gender differences in this area: girls, for example, tend to be more “debilitated” by failure. They are more likely to get upset when confused by a challenging task, and question their ability. They are also more likely to interpret a failure as a sign of lack of ability. The issue here is not ability itself; it’s how girls think and respond in the face of failure. Self-compassion gives girls a cognitive tool – perhaps even a weapon – to combat the self-destructive thinking that can accompany challenge and failure.
Self compassion can make you braver. Facing down difficult challenge isn’t just about what you do in the big, scary moment. What you do after that moment – how you deal, no matter what the outcome – matters just as much. If you don’t know how to talk to yourself in the face of a setback, and you let mistakes fill you with shame, overthinking, and a desire to isolate…well, who would want to bother ever trying to be brave?
That’s why when I feel myself faltering on a run, I turn down my music and start practicing self-compassion. I tell myself that it was commendable to get out and run in the first place (step one, self-kindness). Then I remind myself of all the other runners who have struggled, not to mention people who are injured or physically unable to do it (step two, common humanity – which adds some gratitude in for good measure). Finally, I tell myself that I may feel weak in this moment, but that doesn’t say anything about me as a runner, or person. (step three, mindfulness).
How do parents foster self-compassion in girls? There isn’t a lot out there in the academic literature, but in a 2010 study, Neff and Megehee found that maternal support, harmonious family functioning, and secure attachment all predicted self-compassion in adolescents.
As with most behaviors and character traits, it always helps to model what you want to teach your children. Just as our kids mimic our words and phrases, they also pick up on how we interpret and respond to stress.
The next time you share a setback or self-critical thought with your daughter, try integrating the three steps (or even one or two of them) into conversation. For example, I might say to my daughter,
“I’m really mad at myself for not getting what I wanted. But I tried as hard as I could, and there were some other stressful, time-consuming things I was dealing with at the time.”
By demonstrating a healthy way to respond to difficulty, you offer a vital script to a girl that she’ll use in countless ways, throughout her life.
Carol Dweck, “Motivational Processes Affect Learning,” American Psychologist 1986; Vol.41(10), 1040-1048.
Kristin Neff, “The Role of Self-Compassion in Development: A Healthier Way to Relate to Oneself,” Human Development 2009; 52:211–214
Kristin Neff and James Pittman McGehee, Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity , 2010, Vol.9(3), p.225