Self-Improvement vs. Self-Compassion: Finding the Balance

When should you stick to your high standards? And when should you accept yourself as "enough"? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen tackles whether self-improvement and self-compassion can be two great tastes that taste great together, or if they’re more like toothpaste and orange juice.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #214

A few weeks ago on the podcast, we tackled the question of when to push versus when to rest. And this prompted a related question from listener Marissa in Richmond, Virginia. She asked where the line falls between holding yourself to high standards versus practicing self-compassion. 

This is a rich, juicy question. The way I read it, Marissa is asking two things: first, when do I push myself to do better, to go farther? And when do I back off and say, "I am enough"? 

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

Secondly, she’s asking, "When do I treat myself with compassion?" Let’s tackle that one first.

When Is the Right Time to Practice Self-Compassion?

The short answer is: always. But maybe not in the way you think. 

Let me explain: it’s super common to conflate self-compassion with letting yourself off the hook. But researcher and psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff, who pioneered the notion of self-compassion, makes a distinction between self-compassion and self-indulgence. In her writing, she cautions against interpreting self-compassion as “I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of ice cream.” Along the same lines, it’s important not to interpret self-compassion as, “I’m uncertain and worried about reaching my high standards, so I’m going to be kind to myself by giving myself a pass.” Not so fast.

Self-compassion doesn’t mean you can give up on quitting smoking, working on your term paper, or getting to work on time. Nor does it make those things fun or relaxing. But self-compassion allows you some kindness and support as you tackle the challenge.

In other words, self-compassion doesn’t necessarily mean choosing the easiest or most pleasurable path, it simply means choosing the kindest.

Specifically, think about how you would talk with someone you care about—a good friend or a child—as they face a challenge, a worry, or a difficult time. Would you be harsh and punitive? Would you tell them to suck it up? Or insist there’s no reason to get their underwear in a knot? No, of course not. You’d be kind and supportive. 

But at the same time, you wouldn’t give up on them—you’d believe in them and encourage them. You’d say, “I know you can do it—you’re strong and capable.” “This is tough but hang in there.” “This will get easier as you go, I promise.” “You’re doing great—keep it up.” 

Self-compassion is the same, but for you, by you. After all, your biggest fans aren’t available 24/7. But you are.

So think of self-compassion as a kind, supportive launchpad from which you can take risks, make mistakes, accomplish hard things, and live up to your high standards.  


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.