“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”

–Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

How compassion can motivate positive changeWe live with a plethora of choices each day – what to eat, drink or wear, who to spend time with, when to rest or sleep, and which values we will embrace, commit to and live by. We strive to live a value driven life.

If you are like me, experiencing immediate pleasure is a delight, highly rewarding and for the most part, happy-making.

But being happy in the here-and-now may be more complicated when people fall for temptations, giving in to an immediate reward from indulging in a promise of short-term hedonistic pleasure that conflicts with personal values and goals. After all, we are works in progress, you and I – two steps forward and one step back. Self-transformation doesn’t happen overnight, whether you are deliberately aware or not, consciously participating or not.


Mostly we make choices out of habit and it takes a real commitment to live intentionally. We know that self-conscious emotions drive most of us toward avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure and these will influence the choices we make, the opinions we hold dear, the insights we gain from reflection, and the ideas we accept as worthy of believing.

But, what happens when you find yourself deviating from your values and caught up in the many temptations that sabotage your best intentions?

We all make mistakes, but should you beat yourself up or show or a little mercy?

Calming Your Inner Critic

When you’re struggling to make a change in your life, it’s tempting to see your mistakes as evidence that there’s something wrong with you. Like me, you might find that the inner critic’s voice becomes your own – and loudly.

Negative self-talk is self-defeating, dominated by pessimism, shame, guilt, fear, anxiety and isolation–hardly a resilient, happy, resourceful state to actualize your potential and go for your dreams. The habit of self-criticism and judgment usually is very subtle, outside of conscious awareness and lowers your self-confidence in your abilities. That undermines your potential for success.

Self-criticism does not work well when you view yourself as the problem. The reptilian brain kicks in and attacks – I can’t believe I gained those 5 pounds back… I should’ve aced that project – thus the self-critical self-talk. Provoking fear of failure, self-critics often don’t even try achieving their goals because the possibility of failure is unacceptable.

Even more problematic, self-critics have a hard time seeing themselves clearly and identifying needed areas of improvement because they instinctually know that self-punishment will ensue if they admit the truth, so we deny there’s a problem or blame someone else.

Further, when we try to motivate ourselves with criticism we stimulate a whole lot of cortisol and adrenaline, activating our flight-fight response – again, hardly the best way to inspire motivation toward self-improvement. That system, designed to protect us and keep us safe, becomes a liability when the threat is to our self-concept. Increased stress demotivates us and we try to self-soothe utilizing quick fixes to feel good.

How Compassion Motivates Positive Change

I’ve discovered that I usually can’t change my behavior by simply resolving to do something simply with my will.

[dt_quote type=”blockquote” font_size=”normal” animation=”none” background=”plain”]Knowing what to do is not the same as being able to do it. If that were true, people would find it easier to stick to their goals and resist temptations.[/dt_quote]

Willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily. Beating yourself up often turns a minor setback into a major relapse. But we can overcome negative patterns one step at a time through healthier ways of relating to ourselves.

When we find ourselves in the cycle of negativity and out of control behaviors, we become the cause for our own pain and distress. Research supports this observation and shows us that you don’t have to feel bad about yourself to make a change. Paradoxically, taking an accepting approach to personal failure can help you to be more motivated to improve yourself. As the spiritual sages across time have pointed out, everyone suffers, and everyone struggles on the path to self-transformation.

What I have learned to do is to stand under and witness my thoughts, and connect to my heart with the recognition that the heart has to be an equal player along with the mind. By becoming still, I see that I am being invited to relate more deeply with my own unmet needs that may be driving the habit and compelling my behavior and self-criticism. As I still myself I surface what’s needed to help myself in the most loving, kind and caring way that I can.

Mindful of the teachings of self-compassion taught by Kristen Neff, PhD, real change happens in the moment we consciously offer self-compassion for the internal critic and its need to whip us into compliance.

New scientific research is giving this ancient wisdom credibility and showing that, when it comes to making a change, self-compassion is our greatest source of strength because it activates the mammalian caregiving system of tending/befriending in the brain releasing feel-good hormones such as oxytocin and opiates. Mammals respond to warm, soft touch and a soothing tone of voice. So a great self-compassion technique is a physical gesture of affection, such as putting your hand on your heart and saying words to yourself in a supportive, soothing tone, acknowledging the difficulty as if you were speaking to a distressed child.

Mindful self-reflection helps you make a positive change.

Self-compassionate people are more likely to take responsibility for past mistakes, while acknowledging them with greater emotional equanimity. Studies have shown that whether you’re trying to lose weight, quit smoking, or start exercising regularly, accepting yourself where you are—and forgiving yourself for setbacks—helps you to engage in healthier behaviors supporting you to succeed.

I encourage you to look at your past actions with compassion, and see how much you have grown.

[dt_quote type=”blockquote” font_size=”normal” animation=”none” background=”plain”]Each step toward the self you want to be is a success, and it will bring more and more inner harmony that is untouchable by circumstance or time.[/dt_quote]

Self-compassion gives you the strength to take care of yourself, even when it’s tempting to succumb to an old habit. Whether you want to change a negative behavior (like overeating or yelling at your kids) or commit to a positive one (like a work-in practice every day), the best approach is to tempt your happiness by cultivating self-compassion and tapping into its transformative power, so that you can stick to your goals—and experience a more fulfilling and happy life.

Neff, Kristen. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Audio CD. Sounds True.

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