Consider these two perspectives:
- “When I make a mistake or perform poorly, I’m my own worst critic. I’m better than that.”
- “When I make a mistake or perform poorly, I go easy on myself. Nobody’s perfect.”
Over the long term, which mindset do you think leads to higher levels of achievement?
If you’re like the vast majority of the people I polled on LinkedIn, you chose number one: Hard on yourself. Striving for perfection. Ambition, resolve, and self-regard are keys to self-improvement.
Not being too had on yourself? Accept anything less than excellence? Saying, “That’s OK. I tried. Nobody’s perfect”?
No self-respecting, hard-charging, success-oriented person thinks that way.
According to this 2012 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, treating yourself with self-compassion–seeing weaknesses, failures, and mistakes as a natural part of life–better motivates people to improve weaknesses and improve performance.
As the researchers write, “These findings suggest that, somewhat paradoxically, taking an accepting approach to personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves.”
Granted, mental toughness builds the foundation for long-term success. But being hard on yourself won’t develop mental toughness. This 2014 study found that the increased stress that comes from self-criticism actually increases procrastination.
That’s the kind of “mental toughness” no one can afford.
What’s a better approach?
Self-compassion and a growth mindset.
I struggled with the idea that self-compassion is the better road to improvement. Self-respect and self-regard, constantly reminding ourselves that we not only could but should do better, keeps us pushing forward.
Self-compassion? Sounds a little too warm and fuzzy, especially for someone from my generation.
Then I realized self-compassion fits perfectly with a mindset I’ve long embraced.
According to research on achievement and success by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, people tend to embrace one of two mental approaches to talent:
- Fixed mindset: The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill are inborn and relatively fixed–we “have” what we were born with. People with a fixed mindset typically say things like, “I’m just not that smart,” or “Science is not my thing.”
- Growth mindset: The belief that intelligence, ability, and skill can be developed through effort–we are what we work to become. People with a growth mindset typically say things like, “If I keep working, I’ll get it,” or “That’s OK. I just need to try again.”
No matter how great your self-esteem is, when you assume that you are what you are and the going gets tough–as the going inevitably does–you start to feel helpless because you think what you “are” isn’t good enough.
And when you think that, you put things off. Or even stop trying.
Why try, when trying won’t matter?
That’s why people with a growth mindset tend to go easier on themselves, but without easing their focus on improvement or achievement.
Instead of saying to themselves, “I should be better than this,” people with a growth mindset think, “Bad news? That didn’t go perfectly. Good news? I worked hard, learned some things, and know what to do differently next time.”
Embracing self-compassion doesn’t mean relaxing standards or seeking to achieve “smaller” goals. Embracing self-compassion just means accepting that failure is a natural step on the road to eventual achievement.
And risks, especially risks to your self-esteem, aren’t something to avoid.
Because everyone makes mistakes. Everyone fails. The people who succeed, in whatever way they define “success,” are the people who find the motivation to keep trying.
Which, according to science, are the people who set hard goals. And, counterintuitive as it may sound, go easy on themselves along the way.