Research shows that practicing self-compassion increases motivation

Don’t worry. Being self-compassionate won’t make you lazy and self-indulgent!

Even though there’s a growing body of research about self-compassion and the links to positive health and well-being, many people misunderstand and hold myths about it that get in the way of them benefiting from the practice. According to leading expert in the field of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., the number one reason people give for why they resist being more compassionate with themselves is the fear that it will lead to laziness and self-indulgence. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that being self-compassionate is about wallowing in self-pity, letting ourselves off the hook, making excuses for our mistakes, doing whatever we want whenever we want or indulging ourselves in ways that reflect a lack of self-control or restraint. While these are common myths, the research on the practice of self-compassion tells another story.

Self-compassion is about offering to ourselves the same kind of love, care and kindness—especially during times of stress and struggle—that we would offer to a friend, a dear colleague or a loved one. And for many people that kind of compassion and care for others comes easily and naturally, while we may have a really hard time giving it to ourselves.

There’s a reason for that. Many of us have received messages throughout our lives that in order to succeed and accomplish our goals, we need to punish and drive ourselves with inner harsh judgment and self-criticism. What research actually shows is that harsh self-criticism activates the threat defense part of our nervous system and when that happens, we’re more likely to move toward “fight-flight-freeze” responses. When our self-concept is under attack, our threat defense system is understandably trying to protect us from the intense pain of negative, harsh condemnation. Common feelings and responses are to feel stuck, shut down, withdraw, disengage, flee the situation or become defensive, emotionally distant or highly reactive to those around us. Sometimes we turn to food, alcohol, drugs, TV and other outlets to numb the pain.

Interestingly, Neff’s research shows that people who have a self-compassionate frame of mind and who practice active self-soothing are actually more (not less) motivated to reach their goals in life. They tend to have a learning and growth mindset which includes recognizing that our mistakes, imperfections, pain and struggles are a very normal part of being human. According to Neff, self-compassion has been shown to increase people’s motivation to learn, to change for the better and to avoid repeating past mistakes. Self-compassion increases people’s capacity for creativity and curiosity. In addition, self-compassionate people tend to have high personal standards and are more likely to take risks. They have less fear of failure and show greater confidence in their abilities to reach their goals. And if they don’t meet those goals, they’re not as upset about these inevitable aspects of work and life. People who practice self-compassion also tend to have more intrinsic motivation and don’t need as many external rewards in order to move toward their goals.

If you’re interested in learning ways to become more self-compassionate, one place to start is to assess your current level of self-compassion. Kristin Neff’s website includes an easy-to-use online tool that offers you the opportunity to test your level of self-compassion. The website also provides many resources including self-compassion exercises, guided meditations and tips to enhance your learning and practice.

Michigan State University Extension provides emotional resiliency resources to help you learn about mindfulness in the workplace, formal and informal mindfulness practices, and offers educational sessions called Stress Less with Mindfulness

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