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Getting Life: When does it help to be hard on yourself and when does it get in the way?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 13 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Most people in Western cultures are pretty self-condemning, at least in the privacy of our own heads. We assume hammering ourselves will keep us from getting complacent and spur us to improve. We are quick to feel ashamed of our flaws and to berate ourselves for mistakes.

When our friends feel bad about messing up, however, we generally tell them not to worry so much. We offer them empathy, reassurance and support. We may point out ways they can improve or encourage them to try harder, but we do so with compassion and a gentle touch.

So which approach really helps people take responsibility for mistakes, keep trying in the face of failure, and improve their performance? Is one approach better in some circumstances but worse in others?

To find out when being hard on ourselves pays off and when it gets in the way, take this quiz:

1. Frequent dieters were asked to taste-test doughnuts as part of a research project. Half were told, “I hope you won’t get hard on yourself for eating these doughnuts. We all unhealthily sometimes and everyone in this study eats this stuff.” Later they all took part in another taste test in which they could basically eat all the candy they wanted. Which group of dieters ate more candy,those who had been offhandedly told not to worry too much about the unhealthy eating, or those who were not offered this out?

2. People were given a detailed test assessing their level of self-compassion. Those high in self-compassion were empathetic with their own emotions and saw their shortcomings as just part of being human. Those low in self-compassion were critical of their emotions and saw their flaws as shameful. Which group was more likely to honestly take responsibility for mistakes and flaws without getting defensive or make efforts to repair damage they had caused and try to change?

3. Who tends to achieve more,people who are highly self-critical and self-punishing about mistakes or people who see mistakes, even serious mistakes, as a normal part of learning and being human?

4. If you are going to take a difficult test that you are worried about failing, are you more likely to do your best if you remind yourself how important it is not to mess up and how embarrassed you will be if you fail? Or are you better off reminding yourself that if you don’t do well it won’t be the end of the world?

According to researcher Kristin Neff, author of "Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, people who are self-compassionate fare better in each scenario. Those who receive even that small cue to be self-compassionate about the doughnut are more likely to restrain themselves from binging on the candy later. Those who score highest on the self-compassion test are least likely to get defensive about their flaws and most likely to take responsibility for their mistakes.

Those who view their faults and errors compassionately are more likely to take risks, learn from setbacks and achieve than those who are highly self-disparaging. And those whose self-talk reduces their anxiety tend to do better on tests than those who threaten themselves with shame if they fail.

In other words, despite our worries about complacency, irresponsibility and laziness, we bounce back better, act more responsibly, achieve more, and perform better if we soothe and comfort ourselves when we hurt and downplay our shame about failure. Honesty about ourselves tends to follow self-compassion, not self-disgust. We more willingly own up to our flaws when doing so doesn’t evoke such harsh self-treatment.

So when does it help to be hard on yourself? Apparently it doesn’t.

And what if you’re not very self-compassionate? Cut yourself some slack about that as well. We don’t see many good models for genuine self-compassion and we aren’t always encouraged in it, even though compassion for others is lauded. But self-compassion can be practiced and learned.

When I was a young mother describing my hopes for my first child, self-esteem ranked at the top. I thought if she felt good about herself, resilience, achievement and character would follow. Unfortunately, too many people get self-esteem at the expense of others or by skimming over their own flaws. Self-compassion may be a better goal for our children and for ourselves.

Wendy Ulrich, PhD, MBA, psychologist, author and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth (sixteenstones.net), most recently co-authored the New York Times bestseller "The Why of Work."

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