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Stop Seeing Failure, Start Using Self-Compassion

joy in the new yearImagine if we could forgive our mistakes and flaws, pick ourselves up when we get down, and refrain from judging our actions and emotions. We all could do with a little more self-compassion. Instead, we tend to judge ourselves, catastrophize when something doesn’t go as planned, and we can even be hard on ourselves when we’re hurting the most. We might trump up our insecurities and refuse to sympathize when we’re struggling.

I suffer from anxiety and depression and I have a penchant for spotting my failures before they’ve even occurred — something I don’t do to anyone else in the world. So why the hard line when it comes to me, myself and I?

During his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said:

“Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.”

Of course the President meant sensationalizing, but this statement reminded me of my anxiety and depression and the destructive ways I feed them rather than practicing compassion.

I’m a compassionate person. My empathy moves everything around me. I’m highly sensitive to the needs of others. Yet I fail to show myself the kindness that I show others. It’s like there’s a no-forgiveness policy for my own emotions.

Worriers like me operate under the delusion that worrying will make us better. It will make us perform better, make better impressions, and generally be better at life. But when anxiety takes over I feel like I’ve failed.

“I’ve done it again,” I think to myself. “I threw out all the coping tools and let myself get too stressed. Now I’m worried about everything and I’ll keep worrying about everything because I don’t know how to get off this rollercoaster of fear.”

There’s no solace there. No sympathy. And I assume that everything will get worse. It probably will because I won’t do anything to help myself — I’ve already decided that all hope is lost. When I feel hopeless, my depression flourishes.

Maybe the best way to keep myself from getting cornered by worry and sadness is to stop looking for failure. But it’s in our nature to look for negative aspects of something, as Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker explains in this post. It’s called negativity bias and it’s an instinct that keeps us from entering into dangerous situations, but it also causes to ignore silver linings. We miss the compliments that accompany the criticism. We remember the rainy days and the bad encounters. We recall all the difficulty we had with something rather than the comfort, the payoff or the growth.

How does one wipe clean the slate and view each situation without bias? Here are a few steps.

Start the day with an agenda. When I get up in the morning I try to remind myself of what it is I want to get out of the day. Do I want to get out of bed and go find some stress? No way. Do I want to spend all day anxious, ignore all the positive things that I do and then beat myself up at the end of the day for not being more productive, creative, or laid-back? Nope.

I want to experience the day as it is, without getting bogged down by any number of negative moods. I want to bounce back from anxious or depressed thoughts, take pride in my accomplishments and feel fulfilled at the end of the day.

With an agenda, at least I know where to reorient myself if I get lost.

Use affirmations. Pessimism tends to fill our heads with negative self-talk, telling us we can’t do something, we’re not worthy or good enough. It’s habitual and we do it without thinking. But we can’t be all that bad. It’s impossible. You have a 50/50 chance of being absolutely incredible and it’s highly unlikely you’ve lost 100 percent of the time.

Think of at least one positive thing about yourself and hang your hat on it today. Maybe you’re a great dancer, a considerate friend, a great organizer, a reliable big sister, a funny Dad, a breath of fresh air. Pull it out of your pocket when you’re feeling down on yourself. Say, “You know what, I’m not perfect, but I have this.”

Remember the law of opposites. Without failure there would be no success. Every setback teaches us the path to success. If you consider the law of opposites, you come to see harping on failure as a huge mark against you as totally ridiculous. Failure is just a lesson. It’s not any different than going to a seminar. Failure is simply the gathering of experience.

Practice self-forgiveness. There is never any reason for a you to be coldhearted to yourself. We all make mistakes and rubbing your nose in it won’t help anything. Before you unload on yourself, pretend you’re speaking to your grandmother, your little brother, your daughter. Give yourself the same respect and compassion you’d give a loved one.

Perfection is boring. We can be impossibly hard on ourselves simply for not being perfect. But why do we want to be perfect? Are all your heroes perfect? All your role models flawless, mistake-free? Who are these people? It seems that a life truly lived would be full of missteps. We can’t beat ourselves up for simply living, can we?

During an award ceremony in 2012, singer-songwriter and COVERGIRL Janelle Monáe told young girls that they didn’t have to change who they were to be beautiful. Like her, they should just be themselves. “I didn’t have to become perfect because I’ve learned through my journey that perfection is the often the enemy of greatness. Embrace what makes you unique, even if it makes other uncomfortable.”

Come to think of it, I’ve never met an interesting, memorable, dynamic person who was also perfect. I don’t think I ever want to.

Self-compassion isn’t easy when you’ve been cultivating and sharpening all these barbs to keep yourself in line, but when you stop mining for failure and worshiping perfection it gets a little easier to be a friend to yourself.

Stop Seeing Failure, Start Using Self-Compassion

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Stop Seeing Failure, Start Using Self-Compassion. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 8 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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