It Seems Some Ambitious People Are Not Great at Being Kind to Themselves

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

There is a well-known and often-Pinterested quote from the late motivational speaker Zig Ziglar that appeals greatly to a particular kind of person: “When you are tough on yourself,” the quote goes, “life is going to be infinitely easy on you.” Be willing to beat yourself up, in other words, and success will follow. To Ziglar believers, there is value in being hard on yourself.

This is one of those ideas people tend to have strong feelings about, either agreeing or rejecting it with a certain amount of fervor. Recently, a team of psychologists from Canada, Germany, and the U.S. decided to investigate the Ziglar types, who seem to resist the idea of self-compassion or self-care, choosing instead to be hard on themselves. “People do not typically view compassion toward others in negative terms or advocate berating other people for their shortcomings,” the study authors write in the journal Self and Identity, “so why would anyone oppose the suggestion that they should be kinder and less critical toward themselves?”

As a concept itself, self-kindness is, of course, nothing new. But as a construct in the scientific literature, it is still a rather novel idea. Over the last decade or so, research in this area has been steadily growing, with studies linking self-compassion to all sorts of benefits. Those who know how to be nice to themselves tend to have lower rates of anxiety or depression, and they’re also better at taking negative life events in stride. More targeted studies have found specific benefits of self-compassion for people living with HIV, who are better able to cope with their condition than those who are self-critical; one study on menopause found that women who are kinder to themselves appear to be better equipped at handling their hot flashes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one recent review of the literature – encompassing 79 studies of more than 16,000 study volunteers from around the world – found that self-compassion is associated with greater happiness and satisfaction with life. Life is just more pleasant when you’re nice to yourself.

So who are these people who struggle with self-compassion, and why is it so hard for them to treat themselves with the same kindness they’d offer a friend or family member who was struggling? Over at BPS Research Digest, psychology writer Christian Jarrett summarizes the study methodology:

Kelly Robinson and her colleagues surveyed 161 young adults about their tendency to be self-compassionate or not, the importance they ascribed to different values from prosperity to equality, and then asked them to imagine two scenarios of personal failure, one in which they treated themselves with self-compassion and forgiveness, and one in which they were hard on themselves and self-critical. Finally, the participants said how they’d feel about themselves after these two scenarios, based on 18 different character dimensions.

Interestingly, nearly everyone surveyed agreed that self-compassion is a good thing, and that it makes for a happier life – even the people who didn’t regularly practice self-compassion said they felt this way. The difference, however, was in how some people said they would feel about themselves after engaging in some self-care. Those who were less likely to show themselves compassion explained why: It would make them feel lazy or careless, lacking in ambition or competitiveness. As Game of Thrones’ Randyll Tarly might phrase it: Self-compassion would make them soft.

After a thorough round of self-flagellation, on the other hand, the less self-compassionate would expect to “feel stronger and more responsible,” Jarrett reports; put another way, self-criticism would help them feel on top of their game. “Overall, the results suggest that people who differ in self-compassion are just as interested in success and achievement,” he explains, “it’s just that the less self-compassionate think that being kind to themselves will hinder their ability to achieve because they associate self-kindness with being weak and less responsible and ambitious.”

And yet the research so far has not found a clear link between motivation or success and self-criticism. There is some evidence, on the other hand, of an association between motivation and self-kindness, perhaps because the latter alleviates the fear of failure. In contrast to the Ziglar quote, then, it seems to be truer that success and happiness happen when you let yourself lighten up, already.

Why Some People Insist on Being Self-Critical