Why self-compassion helps you learn

by Annelise Mitchell October 12, 2016

Why self-compassion helps you learn

A recent TedX talk by Kristen Neff, an Associate Professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, has highlighted a characteristic that I believe is central to learning and personal growth.

Having compassion for ourselves.

The idea of self-compassion is in contrast to the ideas proclaimed by the self-esteem movement - that a high self-esteem enables individuals to achieve their best, as when they have high esteem for themselves, they believe in themselves, and this leads to greater achievement.

Why is self-esteem not enough?

Self-esteem, according to Neff, is a global evaluation of our self-worth, a judgement we make in comparison to others, and when our comparison feels lacking, as can happen when we receive a grade that is less than one of our peers – we can feel distress. We see ourselves less than our peer, and being less than is not what we are taught to be, we need to be above average.

Psychologists in the past believed, and still do today, that a person’s low self-esteem can have an adverse effect on their psychological health. According to Neff, and Dorothy Rowe, a renowned clinical psychologist, when we think very little of ourselves, or even “hate” ourselves, we open ourselves up to all sorts of mental distress, from anxiety, depression, and sometimes leading to self-destructive behaviours.

However, as Neff outlines, a high self-esteem can also be problematic. Due to the self-esteem movement of the last twenty years, many educators and psychologists have argued that for children to have a better self-esteem, they need to feel “special” and “above average.” The problem with needing to feel special and above average is that the individual will endlessly feel the need to be better than others just to avoid feeling average. The whole “I’m better than you” mantra comes to life. Taken to the extreme, this type of behaviour can lead to narcissism, where the individual is only concerned with themselves.

The problem with relying on self-esteem is that it is reliant on success. We only feel good about ourselves when we succeed in those areas of life that are important to us. The issue arises when we fail, or fail to meet our ideal standard. The consequent effect is that we feel terrible, particularly for young girls. As Kristen points out, the ideal appearance that girls are taught to live up to, and increasingly the standard is looking like a princess (if kid’s parties are anything to go by), can play havoc with girls (women’s) self-esteem when they feel that they are lacking.

The solution, according to Kristen, is to practice self-compassion. By relating to ourselves kindly and embracing ourselves as we are – flaws and all.

When we feel that we are different from others, we can cause ourselves endless distress because we feel abnormal. We feel isolated in our suffering and imperfections rather than seeing these human elements as what connects us to other people.

Why are we so critical of ourselves?

We believe that self-criticism will increase our motivation. From a very young age, we are taught that if we are too kind to ourselves, we will become self-indulgent and lazy. Happy as a pig in mud, as the old proverb goes.

In fact, as Kristen has found, self-criticism, rather than increasing our motivation actually decreases our motivation because it paralyses us. When we self-criticise, we shut down, and can become depressed, causing a state of entropy that leads to no learning and eventual decay.

Why is self-criticism so destructive, and how does it limit our learning potential?

I have come to see self-criticism like acid, it only destroys by gradually eating through the edifice of what it has landed upon. Like acid, when we think a thought about something we don’t like about our self, such as an imperfection, our sense of self feels like it is being destroyed. Our self-criticism, like acid, causes us to attack the problem, and the problem is perceived as our self.

As Neff outlines, when we criticise ourselves, we are tapping into our body’s “Threat-Defence System,” or what is sometimes dubbed, our “reptilian brain.” Our body, still functioning like it has for millennia, believes that it is under physical threat, causing us to release adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones, thus preparing us to either fight (which is rare) or run away (far more common).

Why is this so problematic?

In the modern era, where we are surrounded by no obvious external threat – when we criticise our self, what we feel is a threat to our self-concept, how we see our self in the world. This perceived threat causes paralysis, leading to a resistance to new experiences and opportunities. Without these experiences and opportunities, we don't learn and grow.

Neff provides advice that has nurtured me throughout the process of learning, and that is practising self-compassion. Like a mother nurturing her offspring, we need to practice self-nurturing, with the aim of reducing our cortisol levels and increasing our oxytocin and opiates, two feel good hormones. When we are in this state of safety and comfort, argues Neff, we are in the optimal mind state to do our best.

Indeed, with self-compassion, we are in the optimal state to learn.


When we feel compassion for ourselves, we open ourselves up to learning experiences.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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