When should we be strict with ourselves, and when should we practice self-compassion and give ourselves a pat on the back? As with everything in personal development, finding the right balance is key.
Self-compassion, when understood correctly, is a virtue. It is the ability to be on your own side, soothe your pain, and support yourself. It is the absence of “beating yourself up”. Having said that, it is easy for self-compassion to turn into its shadow side—self-pity. When that happens, we are unable to hold ourselves accountable, take our goals seriously, or move forward with energy and determination.
That is why it is much better for us to emphasize self-love, rather than self-compassion. While for some the difference may seem too subtle, or purely semantic, these two terms indeed represent two different ways of being kind to oneself. Self-compassion comes from a wounded heart; self-love comes from a healed, matured relationship with oneself.
Which one will we default to? It depends on our background, emotional baseline, and identity.
When the foundation of our personality includes a sense of shame, low self-worth, or self-criticism, only then we talk about self-compassion. In other words, the desire for self-compassion is a sign that we lack self-love—most likely because we did not grow up in a loving and supportive environment, and our identity was profoundly shaped by that.
In my case, I was born and raised in a family where there was constant criticism and condescending treatment from one of my primary carers, along with lack of support in the things that were my natural aspirations. Yet, even as a child, for some mysterious reason, despite all that adverse emotional environment I was in, I somehow decided to love myself unconditionally, to believe in myself, and invest in my dreams. I became my own center of gravity, and started living from the inside out.
As a result, there is no sense of shame in me. Zero. No harsh self-criticism, no sense of low-self worth. So I never think about self-compassion. I don’t need to seek it, desire it, or practice it.
Whenever I feel that I’m not dedicated enough to one of my goals, and that I’m failing because I’m not trying hard enough, I’ll be very strict with myself. But that will come out of a place of self-love—I’m being strict because I’m coaching myself to be on track with my higher goals and aspirations, with my deeper desires. I’m being strict with myself because I love myself and the causes that I pursue—and not because I believe that I need punishment, or that I think I’m not good enough.
Self-discipline is an expression of self-love and self-respect—otherwise it would be meaningless. We seek to keep ourselves on track with our goals and aspirations, we seek to grow, and we coach ourselves to do and be our best, all because we love ourselves. We want the best out of ourselves and for ourselves.
So my invitation is this: let’s shift from self-compassion to self-love. From the need to soothe ourselves to the commitment to our values, and the willingness to sacrifice for them. From relying on ourselves for mercy to relying on ourselves for strength. From being a hurt child to being a strong child.
What does that mean, in practical terms? It means that when you fail, you neither beat yourself up, nor become overly comfortable or lenient. You learn what you can learn, recognize that there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be, and get back to taking action in your path.
It means that if you skipped your Never Zero habit because you didn’t feel like doing it, your answer to yourself is not,
“It’s okay, you had a tiring day and you were not feeling so good today.” (self-compassion)
It’s also not,
“You idiot, why do you keep skipping and failing? You won’t achieve anything like this.” (self-shaming)
“Okay, you took a step away from your aspirations, away from your ultimate values and happiness. Was it worth it? Remember, this is not how you want to live. How will you do better next time?” (self-love + self-discipline)
In a nutshell: Self-compassion says, “if you love yourself, let this one go”. Self-discipline says, “if you love yourself, re-align your actions with your values.”
Making this shift is not as simple as making a decision, and being done with it. It might require a process of healing, of letting go of the past, and seeing yourself again as if for the first time. It may require a radical shift in your self-image.
Are you too hard on yourself, too lenient, or balanced? Reflect on how you might need to tweak your self-talk accordingly.
If your challenge is that you are too hard on yourself, download the free Workbook and try the Self-Compassion exercise. On the other hand, if you need to be firmer with yourself and hold yourself accountable, go through the Black and White and Make Your Offering exercises in the Workbook.
In both cases, the meditation Shift Your Self-Talk, part of the MSD app, will be helpful in consolidating the change.