Take a moment to think about the goals and resolutions you set for this past year:

What approach did you take to meet those goals last year?

What helped you reach those goals?

How did you handle your failures? What helped you bounce back?

What worked against you as you pursued those goals?

I’d be willing to bet that some of you answered “me” to that last question. The part of us that often gets in the way of reaching our goals is the negative self-talk in our head and the ridiculously high standards we measure ourselves by along the way.

This isn’t another article about how to set realistic, time-bound, and values-based goals. How you talk to yourself as you strive towards your goal is just as important as the goal you set.  

The Trap of Negative Self-Talk

We set out towards our goals with the expectation that we need to perform perfectly for it to count. Any misstep along the way is a failure. However, the journey towards our goals is not linear, and on the journey forward we inevitably trip and stumble backwards.

When we fall short of our expectations, it’s human to kick ourselves when we’re down. See, I am a screw up. If I were just more disciplined I would be able to finish my workout today.

We think that beating ourselves into compliance will one day transform us into the fit, successful, and sociable ideal version of ourselves. Yet, if beating ourselves up worked, we would all be at the top of the pyramid right now.

“How you talk to yourself as you strive towards your goal is just as important as the goal you set.”

What experience teaches us is that beating ourselves up when we’re down usually leads to burnout—we may keep going for some time, but eventually our motivation is depleted. Feeling empty, we may indulge in those old behaviors we were trying to change, leading us to feel even worse.

Well I suck at meditating…*opens Instagram*

You might be beating yourself up when you:

  • Make should statements: “I should be running 8-minute miles by now.”
  • Make judgmental statements: “I’m am a talentless hack.”
  • Cycle rapidly between being all-in and giving up.
  • Ignore your progress and mini-successes.

We know that others don’t respond well to criticism. When confronting a loved one about an issue, we’ve learned that accusations usually lead to defensiveness, hurt feelings, and unproductive conversations.

It turns out the same is true for the accusations we make against ourselves. When you say, “I’m a talentless hack,” you initiate a spiral of hurt. You feel threatened and defensive. You shut down.

What is Self-Compassion?

To reach our goals, we need to be striving from a place of abundance rather than lack. How you talk to yourself frames your perspective. Is your inner narrator a strategic coach, or a demoralizing drill sergeant?

I want to be clear that I’m not introducing a self-esteem approach—cultivating a positive view of the self—as the research has shown self-esteem to be an appealing, yet ineffective motivator. Because failure is inevitable, there’s always an argument against self-esteem—some evidence to prove you’re not as smart, athletic or successful as you think.

However, it’s hard to argue against the fact that as a human being you are worthy of kindness, especially in moments of pain. This is the essence of self-compassion.  

The leading self-compassion researcher, Dr. Kristin Neff, describes self-compassion as a practice of approaching ourselves from a posture of kindness when confronted with our failure and pain. She proposes that this kindness paves the way for comebacks and active coping.

“SELF-COMPASSION INVOLVES IDENTIFYING WHAT WE’RE FEELING AND WHAT WE NEED TO BE KIND TO OURSELVES IN THAT MOMENT.” 

Think back on moments in life when you’ve failed, and how others in your life responded to those failures. Maybe they fall into three categories:

  • Those who criticized you.
  • Those who comforted you with praise.
  • Those who held you and helped you find a way forward.

Think about how each of those responses made you feel. The response we prefer from others is often the last resort we offer to ourselves. We are sensitive to the criticism given by others, but accept the criticism we give ourselves.

Beating ourselves up is often fueled by the belief, “If I’m not hard on myself, who will be?” Let me clarify that self-compassion is not letting us off the hook. I’d argue it helps us be more accountable and responsible for growth and change.

When we’re compassionate with ourselves we’re less defensive about our failures and weaknesses. It feels safer to acknowledge what when wrong when we aren’t threatening ourselves with criticism. Feeling supported, it’s easier to start again.

Trying Out Self-Compassion

Self-compassion, in practice involves identifying what we’re feeling and what we need to be kind to ourselves in that moment.

An alternative to “talentless hack” might be, “That’s the first time I gave a presentation, and I’m feeling insecure about my performance. I’ll talk to my manager later to get some ideas for improving my next presentation.” This response acknowledges emotion, offers support, and creates opportunity for action and change.  

The easiest way to practically apply self-compassion is to ask, “What would I offer a friend in this situation?” Maybe your friends appreciate your ability to listen without judging or offering advice. Seek this out for yourself.

For example, after sending an email with sensitive information to the wrong person, you might say to yourself: “This is a really vulnerable situation to be in and I’m feeling lonely, maybe I need to talk to someone about it.” Then make a phone call to a trusted person in your life.

My favorite self-compassion practice comes from Rosie Molinary’s Beautiful You Journal. She suggests we reframe judgments as information. Say you forgot to turn on the crockpot before leaving for work.

You could respond by saying “I’m an idiot,” or look for information in the mistake. Maybe your forgetfulness an indication of how difficult things have been at work, and that you could use some extra support at home or on the job.

Other alternatives to beating yourself up include asking:

  • What do I need right now? For a new professional, it could be the mantra, “This is challenging, and I’m trained for this.” For a shy individual going to a social event, “This is out of my comfort zone, but I am worthy of connection.”

  • What’s the most compassionate thing I can say/do for myself in this moment? For a college freshman, fearful for the first round of finals, it could be the reminder, “I’ve never taken college-level finals before. This is my time to learn.”

At first, you might struggle to identify what you need and what it means to be show yourself compassion. With exploration and practice, you’ll learn how to be a friend to yourself in tough moments.

Some people find it helpful to make a list (or collage if you’re feeling artsy) of people, places, words and things that help them in moments of pain.

It’s a new year, and you are the same person you were yesterday. It may be days, weeks, and months before the changes you seek start to manifest, but you can change the way you talk to yourself today.

You can choose to fill your cup with self-compassion, or choose to fill it with the ways you do not measure up. One is a much lighter cup to carry; it may even fuel you towards your goals.

Click here for more content by Elise Howell, LPCA!

Elise Howell, LPCA
Elise's passion is to collaborate with teen girls and their families in navigating the unpredictable years of adolescence, and supporting women in cultivating healthy relationships with their whole selves. She engages with clients' strengths to help clients process their stories, build skills to move them towards their goals, and reconnect with what’s most important to them in life. When she is not watching classic romantic comedies, Elise enjoys kayaking, hiking, and beach days with her husband. She loves all things Harry Potter and musical theater.

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