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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.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #214
image of woman being self-compassionate and also thinking about self-improvement

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"? 

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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.  

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