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
Episode #214
image of woman being self-compassionate and also thinking about self-improvement

When Do I Reach for High Standards? And When Do I Say, "I Am Enough"?

Speaking of high standards, let’s address the other question: "When do I push myself to do better? And when do I say, 'I am enough?'" 

The answer, counterintuitively, is to do both simultaneously. Self-acceptance and self-improvement can play nicely together. Or, as the great psychologist Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox of life is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Accepting yourself as "enough" means accepting your strengths and weaknesses—your talents and flaws—as they are. For example, you might accept that you have a tendency to get defensive when criticized. 

But at the same time, you might also commit to working on that and accepting feedback in a more constructive way.

Here’s where we circle back to self-compassion. Interestingly, it’s easier to admit we have weaknesses and are working on them when we provide ourselves a kind, compassionate environment. If we expect our own brain to call us out or harshly criticize us for falling short, we push our weaknesses underground. We hide them and put forth a front, which makes it impossible to move forward. 

Furthermore, self-compassion may actually help you adhere to your high standards. In a study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers asked undergraduate women to eat a donut and then participate in what was described as a taste test of different candies.

Some of the women, after eating the donut, were surreptitiously given an informal self-compassion intervention. The researcher said to them, “Several people have told me that they feel bad about eating donuts in this study, so I hope you won’t be hard on yourself. Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes, and everyone in this study eats this stuff, so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel really bad about it.” 

Here’s where it gets interesting: the women who got a shot of self-compassion, even just in casual conversation, ate significantly less candy than those who didn’t get the self-compassion statement.  You’d think it would be the opposite—that those who were given some compassion would feel let off the hook and then indulge, but no. Instead, a little self-compassion helps us get back on the wagon and stick to our standards.

All in all, self-compassion makes it easier to admit our habits could use a tune-up, our disposition has a few warts, or that we plain old screwed up. But then, from the supportive environment we create for ourselves using self-compassion, we can shoot for the stars without shooting off our mouth at our foibles and mistakes. 


About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen 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. 

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