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Is your self talk self-defeating?

How do you respond when you fail to meet your expectations? Are you pretty tough on yourself?

My guess is that you probably are. We are our own worst critics, after all.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of beating yourself up when things don’t go your way, telling yourself that you’re lazy or not good enough. The funny thing is, we’d probably never talk to our friends that way. When asked directly, most people report that they are kinder to others than themselves [1].

So why can’t we cut ourselves the same slack?

We tend to think that being kind to ourselves is a cop out. It’s too wishy-washy and makes us weak. We fear that, if we’re kind to ourselves, we’ll become lazy, self-indulgent, undisciplined and out of control [2]. Surely, if we’re too kind, we’ll achieve nothing, stagnate in life and never progress forward, right?

Just take a moment to think about the last time you were beating yourself up over a mistake or a perceived failure. Did it make you feel better? Did it motivate you to try harder next time? Was it helpful? Contrary to what we believe, self-criticism is negatively associated with goal-attainment [3]. It can lead to rumination or procrastination, which doesn’t exactly help us to work on our weaknesses.

So what’s the alternative?


You probably just cringed at that word and it wouldn’t surprise me - I did the same when I first came across it. Sounds a bit too soft, right?

Self-compassion is about developing a caring and accepting relationship with yourself, particularly when you face hardships [4]. Contrary to what we may believe, people who are kind to themselves and accepting of their own failures may actually be more motivated to improve [5]. Self-compassion gives us the safety needed to acknowledge our weaknesses, so that we are in a position to change them for the better.


Self-compassion isn’t about aiming low.

It has nothing to do with the goals we set for ourselves - it’s about how we respond in the face of setbacks. If you have lofty and challenging goals, you can probably expect a few setbacks along the way. It’s how you deal with those that matters. The difference between compassion and criticism is not one of aspiration. The difference is that self-compassionate people don’t crumble when they don’t meet their goals.

Self-compassion isn’t about giving up on yourself.

A key component of self-compassion is acceptance - unfortunately there are a number of misconceptions around this notion too. Acceptance is not the same resignation. Far from it. Acceptance does not preclude improvement, rather, acceptance precedes improvement. How can you improve upon something if you don’t have an accurate idea of where the issue lies? You can’t solve a problem that you’re not willing to have. It’s about recognising your challenges and understanding that failures are a part of being human. This does not mean a passive resignation to fate, rather, it is facing the way things actually are. This perspective gives you the freedom to strive for improvement.

If we are more mindfully aware of our thoughts and emotions during challenging situations, we may be more likely to select appropriate strategies to help ourselves cope adaptively. When we view our circumstances from a place of acceptance, as opposed to judgment, we may be more willing to identify areas for improvement. When we acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and encounters difficulties, we may feel more empowered to face challenges head-on, rather than dwelling in self-pity.

What are the stats?

A wealth of research has reported consistent associations between self-compassion and lower levels of body image concerns, ED pathology, and negative affect [7].

Self-compassion and self-esteem correlate positively with each other [8] and negatively with both depression and anxiety [9].

Self-compassion is uniquely associated with improved body dissatisfaction outcomes over and above the benefits provided by self-esteem [10].

Self-compassionate people have also been found to ruminate much less than those who lack self-compassion [11], presumably because they can break the cycle of negativity by accepting their human imperfection with kindness.

Individuals who treat themselves with kindness and without unfair criticism, and who refrain from over-identifying with negative internal experiences, are less likely to impulsively react to adverse situations [12].

Self-compassion tends to be positively related to adaptive coping strategies, such as acceptance [13] and positive reframing [14]. It is associated with fewer maladaptive avoidant coping strategies, such as denial, distraction, and behavioral disengagement.

Self-compassion enables us to admit and accept that there are negative as well as positive aspects of our personality, helping us to take responsibility for our roles in past negative events without experiencing as much negative affect [15].

Developing Self-Compassion

Practicing compassion involves four key elements:

  1. Awareness - Being attentive or sensitive to the fact that some sort of ‘suffering’ is occurring, whether it is emotional pain, mental pain, physical pain, or all of the above.