Self-Compassion the Agile Way

How often do you give yourself a break? Cut yourself some slack?

How often do you feel good about yourself?

For a great number of high achievers, the answer to all three questions is not often.

Self-Compassion: Taking the SAT's

In a competitive world, high achievers climbed to the top by never settling for anything less than straight A’s, near-perfect standardized test scores, and glowing performance reviews at work.

I remember taking the SAT’s in my junior year of high school. I’d been practicing for this test with my father on weekends since I was eleven. In the four practice tests I took before the real deal, I scored a perfect each time (this was back when the top score was 1600).

On the day of the test, I felt prepared, calm, and ready. The test was easier than I expected. In fact, it was easier than the practice tests I just took, and I aced those.

I felt like a shoe-in for 1600.

Like today, a perfect SAT score then meant qualifying for better scholarships, getting into top schools automatically, and meeting the President of the United States. This was my future, I thought.

A few months later, I received my score: 1580.

Not only was it not a perfect 1600, I got three wrong answers. Three. Nowhere close to perfect.

Sounds ridiculous, right? But I was pissed. What had all those years of hard work been for if I didn’t get a perfect score the one time it mattered?

I felt like I had let my father down. I felt like I had let myself down. Had I ruined my chances to get into Harvard, MIT, etc.? Had I jeopardized my future?

With the benefit of hindsight and maturity, I realize now how silly and overblown those concerns were.

In real terms, there wasn’t much difference between a perfect 1600 and a slightly less than perfect 1580. I probably would have gone to the same school. I probably would have made the same career mistakes after graduation. I probably would have still went to law school.

And I’d probably still be writing this article today.

(Except I’d be boasting about how I got a perfect SAT score.)

(And no, I never got to meet the President.)

If you see yourself in my story, even a little, there’s a good chance you’re a high achiever who’s incredibly hard on yourself. Even though my score was better than 99% of the nation, I still beat myself up over the last 1%. You might be suffering from this problem if:

  • You’re a perfectionist.
  • You’re your own worst critic.
  • People often tell you to take it easier on yourself.
  • You don’t take praise well.

A growing body of research shows that this overwhelming self-criticism does not help. On the contrary, this type of self-criticism might be hurting your ability to succeed.

Why So Self-Critical?

Human beings adapted a sophisticated fight-or-flight system to respond to danger. In order to survive on the African savanna, we needed an early warning system to alert us to potential threats.

Is that a lion lurking in the bush, ready to pounce? Is that current going to swallow me whole if I put my foot into the river?

Our evolutionary psychology was well-adapted to this world. But as the modern era came, we lost many of these existential threats.

They were replaced by threats from the Herd, social threats. These threats didn’t threaten our lives. They threatened our sense of self-worth.

In time, we internalized these critical voices. For high achievers in particular, self-criticism is the automatic mode of existence. We constantly question our worth, our abilities, and our capacity to succeed in the face of adversity.

Many high achievers credit this self-critical streak as the key to our personal success. But is it really? Is there a better way that isn’t so psychologically damaging?

What is Self-Compassion?

Professor Kristin D. Neff of the University of Texas-Austin is one of the leading researchers on the relatively new topic of self-compassion. Neff is the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind.

Neff identifies self-compassion as having three core components:

  1. Self-kindness. Cutting yourself some slack, treating yourself with the same kindness you would a trusted friend.
  2. Common humanity. Recognizing imperfection, recognizing our shared experience with others, understanding we don’t need to go through hardship by ourselves.
  3. Mindfulness. Being in the present moment, having perspective, and being non-judgmental about negative thoughts and feelings.

The key thing to think about with self-compassion is how you would treat a friend if they were going through a rough patch. You probably wouldn’t criticize them for failing. You probably wouldn’t tell them to suck it up and move on. Yet, these are the kinds of things that we tell ourselves when we suffer setbacks.

Check out Kristin Neff’s TEDx talk below where she goes through the core components of self-compassion:


Self-criticism is useful only up to a point. For people like me who tend to get mired in negative self-talk, self-compassion corrects the psychological imbalance and allows you to move on.

But self-compassion isn’t an excuse for low standards. Here’s how Heidi Grant Halvorson, writing for the Harvard Business Review blog, puts it:

While the spirit of self-compassion is to some degree captured in expressions like give yourself a break and cut yourself some slack, it is decidedly not the same thing as taking yourself off the hook or lowering the bar. You can be self-compassionate while still accepting responsibility for your performance. And you can be self-compassionate while striving for the most challenging goals — the difference lies not in where you want to end up, but in how you think about the ups and downs of your journey.

For high achievers, self-compassion can sound like self-help gobbledygook for losers who can’t hack it. What Halvorson, the associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School, is saying is that high standards are compatible with self-compassion.

You can give yourself a break and still achieve great things.

Self-Compassion or Self-Esteem?

On the other end of the spectrum are people who are irrationally confident in their abilities. The twin forces of entitlement and positive thinking have created a generation of people with oversized self-esteem, wholly detached from reality. A San Diego State University study published in May of 2013 revealed a growing gap in teens between the desire for wealth and success, and not wanting to work hard to earn them.

While I have defended the Peter Pan generation in the past, this is one area of digital native psychology that I can’t stand. Coddled by parents who shielded them from experiencing hardships and told they were special all their lives, Millennials often exhibit an unearned sense of high self-esteem.

But is the unfailing belief in your personal awesomeness all that effective? Is high self-esteem necessary for success?

In a 2012 paper, psychology researchers wanted to compare three different reactions to hardship. They wanted to test the effectiveness of each of the following tactics:

  1. Boosting self-esteem by remembering past successes.
  2. Self-distracting with positive memories.
  3. Self-compassion.

Self-compassion beat the other techniques hands down. According to PsyBlog, self-compassion helped test subjects to:

  • See the possibilities for change,
  • Increase the motivation to change,
  • Take steps towards making a change,
  • Compare themselves with those doing better, to help motivate their change.

Instead of being irrationally confident with high self-confidence, or ignoring the problem with distraction, self-compassion set the best balance of facing the reality of the error and taking steps to make the change.

A 4-Step Process for Treating Yourself With Self-Compassion

Step 1: Initial reaction.

Quick, what’s your initial reaction when you do something wrong?

If you’re a high achiever, it’s probably negative.

“Wow, I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I’m such an idiot.”

“How come other people can get this, but I can’t?”

Step one is to acknowledge the emotion and the thoughts that come with it. According to Professor Neff’s rubric, mindfulness, or non-judgmental acknowledgement of the situation, is the key here. The goal isn’t to suppress the negative emotions, but to acknowledge that they are there and that they exist.

If, on the other hand, your irrational self-confidence allows you to ignore the setback by sweeping it under the rug or pointing fingers, you have another problem. Self-awareness is a vital skill, and more important than preserving an oversized ego. If your knee-jerk reaction is to not accept responsibility or deny the truth, the first step is to own the mistake.

Remember that failure isn’t fatal and you can move on from your failures.

Step 2: Kindness.

How would you behave if your best friend went through what you’ve just gone through?

Chances are, you would be much more charitable to your friend. Treat yourself as well as your best friend. This is harder than it appears, especially for people who have a tendency to be hard on themselves but nicer to others.

The key is to remember that you’re a part of a human species that is prone to error, mistakes, and failures. But what separates us from the animals is our profound ability to learn from those errors and get better.

So cut yourself some slack. You’re only human.

Step 3: Forgiveness.

Professor Michael Wohl studied undergrads between exams. He tracked how they did the first time, how much they procrastinated, how they felt about their procrastination, and finally how they did on the second exam.

The key finding was that students who’d forgiven themselves for their initial bout of procrastination subsequently showed less negative affect in the intermediate period between exams and were less likely to procrastinate before the second round of exams. Crucially, self-forgiveness wasn’t related to performance in the first set of exams but it did predict better performance in the second set.

If self-compassion is the strategy, self-forgiveness is the specific tactical step. Students who forgave themselves were more likely to move on and get better. Students who wallowed in self-criticism did not.

We can all do a better job of self-forgiveness. Forgiveness provides the key to move forward.

Step 4: Motivation for change.

Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.

– The Agile Manifesto

Self-compassion unlocks the potential to move forward.

People who are stuck evaluating and re-evaluating the past are trapped in a kind of analysis paralysis. The right thing to do is to move on, but the heart and the head won’t let you. You keep reliving the mistakes you made by not forgiving yourself.

Continuous self-improvement might be the most brutal of agile values. It says that you can never stand still, never rest. That you are always a work-in-progress and that you can always get better.

The right attitude is hard to have in light of this fact. You could easily feel defeated by the need to keep getting better.

Self-compassion is the missing element. It motivates us to respond to new information. It motivates us to iterate our plans in the face of change.

Self-compassion keeps us from giving up. And in a world of failing in order to move forward, the only permanent failure is to give up.

Recommended Reading — Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff


Let’s throw it over to you.

Tell me about a time when you experienced a setback. Did you take it too hard? Did you ignore it and try to cast blame elsewhere? How do you think self-compassion might have helped the situation?

I’ll be curious to see your responses. Take care.

Image by albertogp123.

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