Self-Compassion: Does It Help or Hinder Performance?

You know when you get into a heated disagreement with a partner, child, or roommate, and accidentally let loose one of those generalizations that is the conversational equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire?

Like “Why do you always have to be late? It’s not like all that extra time in front of a mirror is going to change anything.” or “Why are you so lazy? Is it really that hard to pick up the wet towels off the floor?”

Remember how that worked out for you?

Yeah…we generally do a pretty good job of steering clear of these obvious land mines. Yet for some reason, we find it totally acceptable to talk to ourselves in a way that would get us slapped in regular life.

Psychologists have recently begun to emphasize the virtues of a skill called self-compassion – where we treat ourselves with more understanding and kindness. It’s sort of like the Golden Rule in reverse.

But for many high-achievers, it’s a strategy that feels wrong. Perhaps because it sounds vaguely like giving ourselves an easy out for mistakes, and thereby lowering our standards.

So does self-compassion apply to high-achievers? Or is it something that might lead to better psychological well-being, but ultimately keep us from realizing our full potential?

What is self-compassion, anyway?

Self-compassion refers to the practice of approaching your setbacks, failures, and shortcomings from a more non-judgmental and warmer perspective. The alternative being impatience, harsh self-deprecating criticism, and a zero tolerance policy for anything short of perfection.

At first glance it might sound like self-compassion is about letting ourselves off the hook for our screwups, but I don’t think that’s quite it.

Self-compassion is about cultivating a more constructive response to challenging times, where rather than blaming/judging/deciding that we suck (or trying to massage our ego by telling ourselves we are wonderful), we simply accept our results for what they are and see them as inevitable speed bumps on the path to our destination.

It’s about acknowledging we didn’t get the result we wanted, but that these blunders aren’t signs from the universe suggesting we are worthless, good-for-nothing, scum-of-the-earth dingbats. But simply that our work is not done.

As research has begun to highlight the benefits of self-compassion, which include more positive mood/emotion, greater optimism and happiness, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and even better romantic relationship behavior (i.e. self-compassionate partners are more caring and supportive vs. controlling and aggressive), more folks are finding ways to incorporate this ethic into their lives.

However, high-level athletes and other high-achieving types are understandably a little wary. Afraid of losing their competitive edge – that extra something which helps them stay one step ahead of everyone else.

Might a daily dose of self-criticism and internal verbal abuse be the price we have to pay for extraordinary achievement?

Self-compassion and resilience

Researchers at UC Berkeley wanted to see how self-compassion would affect students’ behaviors after doing poorly on a test.

Would they study more? Or less?

86 students took a 10-item GRE-style antonyms test that was designed to be difficult (BTW, want a quick and horrifying reminder of just how much fun the GRE’s were? Try these sample antonyms.).

On average, the students got 4 out of 10 correct on this first test, but were given an opportunity to redeem themselves on a second test, for which they were provided a list of words and definitions to study.

Each student was allowed to study as long as they wanted, but before given the study material, one group of students was given a specific message designed to activate a self-compassion mentality:

“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like this. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.”

Another group of students was given a slightly different message, to activate a self-esteem-based mentality:

“If you had difficulty with the test you just took, try not to feel bad about yourself – you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley.”

A third group served as a control, and received no messages; just the study words and definitions.

The results

As predicted, there were significant differences between the three groups in terms of how much time they spent studying for the next test.

The self-compassion group studied longer, on average, than either of the other groups. 33.32% longer than the self-esteem group, and 50.84% longer than the control group.

Though the self-compassion group didn’t outperform the other two groups by all that much (it was slightly higher, but not a statistically significant difference), study time was significantly related to increased performance. Meaning, those who studied longer got higher scores on the second test.

Does self-compassion enhance performance?

The area of research is still pretty new, so there isn’t a ton of data explicitly linking self-compassion to greater elite performance quite yet. Nevertheless, this study and a growing number of others do provide important pieces of the puzzle. Puzzle pieces which actually seem to represent many of the key ingredients that are important for maximizing and fulfilling our potential.

Does self-compassion increase our belief that a shortcoming can be changed with hard work (a.k.a. the “growth” mindset)? Seems to, yup.

Might self-compassion increase our motivation to honestly confront our weaknesses and take steps to strengthen them? Yesiree.

Could self-compassion help us get through the mopey defeated stage more quickly so we can get back to work and do what we need to do to make our next effort more successful? Yeppers .

At the end of the day, self-compassion seems to help us be more resilient and motivated in the face of setbacks, and leads to greater positive efforts than when we beat ourselves up for failure. So it does not have to mean becoming complacent and lazy. After all, I think there is a fundamental difference between telling yourself it’s no biggie to mess up (complacency), and telling yourself that it’s ok to make mistakes in the sense that mistakes are a normal part of learning and growth, expected of everyone, and don’t make you a worthless person no matter how frustrating or mortifying they can be (self-compassion).

Take action

Want to find out how self-compassionate you are?

Take Dr. Kristin Neff’s official self-compassion assessment online. Just remember to view your test results from a self-compassionate perspective (ha. how meta, eh?).

Take the self-compassion assessment

And if you want to know more about the subscales (self-kindness vs. self-judgment, common humanity vs. isolation, and mindfulness vs. over-identification), here’s a short explanation.

You don’t have to post your scores if you don’t want to, but I’m curious if there’s any sort of theme amongst musicians. Which area of self-compassion needs the most work for you?

photo credit: Loving Earth via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

51 Responses

  1. Self-Kindness: 2.20
    Self-Judgment: 4.00
    Common Humanity: 1.75
    Isolation: 4.75
    Mindfulness: 2.50
    Over-Identification: 4.75
    Overall score: 1.82

    Self-compassion is something I’m working on … but boy do I have a long way to go!

    1. Strangely enough, I just finished reading The Mindful Path to Self-compassion by Dr. Germer. I’m convinced that lack of self-compassion is one of the reasons I quit enjoying a career in music. I changed my whole life around trying to avoid the aversion of never quite living up to my own expectations. This about face has not brought me peace, just Cancer. I have Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book on Depression and his recording on Pain. Having just gotten into this in the last month, it is too early to tell its effect. Thanks, Noah

  2. Self-Kindness: 3.60
    Self-Judgment: 2.00
    Common Humanity: 3.75
    Isolation: 3.00
    Mindfulness: 3.50
    Over-Identification: 3.75
    Overall score: 3.35

    I like this article a lot. It is hard to not beat one self up, especially as a musician, but worth reminding that we are all pretty much going through the same thing when we play, practice, and perform. That should help put things into perspective. Not too bad scores, and it’s taken a while for me to switch my thinking into more positive terms, but it’s much more helpful..trust me!

  3. For your information here are my scores:
    Self-Kindness: 3.00
    Self-Judgment: 1.40
    Common Humanity: 4.25
    Isolation: 1.25
    Mindfulness: 4.25
    Over-Identification: 1.75
    Overall score: 4.18

  4. Self-Kindness: 3.80
    Self-Judgment: 2.80
    Common Humanity: 4.25
    Isolation: 1.75
    Mindfulness: 3.25
    Over-Identification: 2.75
    Overall score: 3.67

    This was NOT me during most of my years as a musician, but is me now after a lifetime of growth and healing. This is an excellent article to emphasis that there is a healthy creative path than a more self-destructive one. Thank you again, Noa, for discussing important issues regarding being a well-rounded musician and human being.

    Teresa

  5. Excellent study. I already had an idea of what my scores would be prior to taking the short test. I’m going to keep your article/study and review it often. Thanks.

    Self-Kindness: 1.60
    Self-Judgment: 3.40
    Common Humanity: 1.25
    Isolation: 2.00
    Mindfulness: 1.50
    Over-Identification: 3.00
    Overall score: 2.32

  6. Self-Kindness: 4.80
    Self-Judgment: 1.20
    Common Humanity: 4.75
    Isolation: 1.00
    Mindfulness: 5.00
    Over-Identification: 2.50
    Overall score: 4.64

  7. Self-Kindness 2.8
    Self-Judgement 4.2
    Common Humanity 1.75
    Isolation 4.25
    Mindfulness 2.25
    Over-Identification 4
    Overall score 2.06

    Not very healthy. I believe these scores changed (lowered) in High School as a result of external judgements (both real and perceived) which I internalized in hopes of improving as a violinist. It is almost impossible for me to do well in auditions or to enjoy performing with this level of low self-compassion. Sad- as I used to love to play, enjoyed the process of practicing and was the most self motivated, inspired violinist I knew, which naturally led to fast growth and a high level of accomplishment. Still trying to figure out what changed and how I can develop a healthier outlook to move ahead. For 10 years I’ve contemplated changing careers, but never sure if the problem is external or internal.

  8. 3.53
    Thx for this, I went to this website and did a 20 minute meditation on “noting your emotions” and loved it.

  9. here you go!

    Self-Kindness: 4.40
    Self-Judgment: 2.20
    Common Humanity: 1.50
    Isolation: 3.75
    Mindfulness: 3.75
    Over-Identification: 3.25
    Overall score: 3.07

  10. Self-Kindness: 2.40
    Self-Judgment: 3.60
    Common Humanity: 2.00
    Isolation: 4.00
    Mindfulness: 3.75
    Over-Identification: 3.25
    Overall score: 2.55

  11. Self-Kindness: 1.80
    Self-Judgment: 4.80
    Common Humanity: 1.75
    Isolation: 3.75
    Mindfulness: 2.25
    Over-Identification: 4.75
    Overall score: 1.75

    Not surprising to me, unfortunately. The self-judgment has always been an issue, and I’ve recently been dealing with quite a bit of performance anxiety. So glad I found the blog! I’ve been gleaning valuable tools to use in my musical career…but apparently more work needs to be done to apply those tools!

  12. Self-Kindness 1.2
    Self-Judgement 4
    Common Humanity 1.25
    Isolation 4.5
    Mindfulness 1.5
    Over-identification 4.5
    Overall score 1.49

    And I think I was even less compassionate towards myself as a concert pianist. I was so hard on myself that I quit playing.

    Thanks for this subject today. How can we teach more self compassion?

    1. Hi Kay,

      One of the studies I read found that giving support and advice, and being more compassionate towards others increased self-compassion. So I suppose this is kind of a win-win way to increase self-compassion.

  13. Self-Kindness: 1.20
    Self-Judgment: 3.80
    Common Humanity: 1.50
    Isolation: 2.25
    Mindfulness: 1.75
    Over-Identification: 3.75
    Overall score: 2.11

    I knew I needed some work but this test opened my eyes to the urgency of getting to work! THANK YOU!

  14. Self-Kindness: 1.80
    Self-Judgment: 4.40
    Common Humanity: 2.50
    Isolation: 3.50
    Mindfulness: 3.25
    Over-Identification: 3.25
    Overall score: 2.40

    Probably about what I figured.

  15. Self-Kindness: 1.40
    Self-Judgment: 4.20
    Common Humanity: 1.75
    Isolation: 3.75
    Mindfulness: 3.00
    Over-Identification: 4.50
    Overall score: 1.95

    Not surprised by this….my lack of self compassion stops me in my tracks after a perceived failure….it’s tough to remember it’s just a bump in the long road.

  16. Self-Kindness: 5.00
    Self-Judgment: 1.00
    Common Humanity: 3.00
    Isolation: 1.00
    Mindfulness: 5.00
    Over-Identification: 2.00
    Overall score: 4.50

  17. I got a score of 2.73. I was hoping for a higher score because I’ve been working on being more ‘human’ in my expectations.. I’m generally rather hard on myself, though. I think it’s something that comes with maturity; that is, beyond the virtuosity stage.

    P.S. Do you think performances are affected by self-compassion?

    1. I haven’t run across anything that spoke to this directly, so this would just be me guessing, but I would imagine that self-compassion would help rather than hurt performances. Perhaps in areas like resilience, for example. Bouncing back more quickly from mistakes when they happen in a performance.

  18. Self-Kindness: 3.20
    Self-Judgment: 2.80
    Common Humanity: 4.50
    Isolation: 3.00
    Mindfulness: 2.75
    Over-Identification: 3.00
    Overall score: 3.27

    Higher than I thought it would be. I’m pretty pleased with a high common humanity score, not so much with over-idenitifcation and isolation. This would have been very different for me 10 or 20 years ago.

  19. Self-Kindness: 4.20
    Self-Judgment: 3.20
    Common Humanity: 2.25
    Isolation: 4.25
    Mindfulness: 4.75
    Over-Identification: 3.00
    Overall score: 3.13
    Thanks for a great article!

  20. I can’t believe how timely this article is! Yesterday I performed with the band, and have been tortured by the one mistake I made. I was mortified when it happened and felt that I had let my entire band, and especially my Pipe Major / intructor down, completely convinced that this was purely ” signs from the universe suggesting I am a worthless, good-for-nothing, scum-of-the-earth dingbat.” So I am not the least bit surprised with my scores. I think I need to change my Self-compassion patterns!

    Self-Kindness: 1.00
    Self-Judgment: 4.60
    Common Humanity: 1.50
    Isolation: 5.00
    Mindfulness: 1.50
    Over-Identification: 4.25
    Overall score: 1.36

  21. Self-Kindness: 3.00
    Self-Judgment: 3.20
    Common Humanity: 2.75
    Isolation: 3.75
    Mindfulness: 3.75
    Over-Identification: 3.25
    Overall score: 2.88

    I’m in High School, and this year I’ve tried experimenting with taking it easy vs. working really hard and focusing nonstop on homework and school work, like I’ve done before. I play the Clarinet, and this year our band has been very small (We just marched with 13 people in a parade the other day). We still sound very good as a band, but pretty much everyone is a soloist. I tend to get very frustrated with myself because I am just not as good as I feel like I should be, but getting mad at myself doesn’t help with convincing myself to practice more instead of focusing on the classes I miss a lot for sports and are the hardest on my brain (AP Literature and Chemistry). I get mad at myself for taking it easy then having to catch up on lots of stuff, so I hope I’ll get to be better at this. I have the highest GPA in my grade so far (straight A’s), but I’m stressing out because I need to get my grades up again before the end of the school year which is in a couple weeks, so I think I’ll stop typing and go finish my book I have to read for AP Lit. 😉
    P.S. Thanks for all the great articles! They’re really helpful and I love how you bring in the science of it all.
    P.S.S. Yay for parenthesis :3

  22. Karen: pianist & organist
    Self-Kindness: 1.00
    Self-Judgment: 5.00
    Common Humanity: 2.50
    Isolation: 5.00
    Mindfulness: 2.25
    Over-Identification: 4.75
    Overall score: 1.50
    I am very hard on myself & find it difficult to change but I’ll work on it. Thank you for the bulletproofmusician. Your articles have been extremely helpful! It’s nice to know that other people use ‘Yeppers’

  23. Self-Kindness: 3.40
    Self-Judgment: 1.40
    Common Humanity: 3.75
    Isolation: 1.75
    Mindfulness: 4.00
    Over-Identification: 1.25
    Overall score: 4.13

    well, good for me, i suppose. i have to agree with Orca’s mom, though. these scores would have been much much different had i taken this a decade ago. time and experience have allowed me to grow and mature in the right direction, and i am left better able to deal with adversity…..

  24. Violin, Viola, Gamba

    Self-Kindness: 2.20
    Self-Judgment: 4.40
    Common Humanity: 2.75
    Isolation: 2.00
    Mindfulness: 3.50
    Over-Identification: 2.25
    Overall score: 2.97

    Its hard to get out of the mindset of being overly critical towards yourself. It does sort of feel like its a bit of a cop out to not think that way. But will try and hopefully it will yeild more productive results.

  25. Self-Kindness: 1.40
    Self-Judgment: 5.00
    Common Humanity: 1.00
    Isolation: 5.00
    Mindfulness: 1.50
    Over-Identification: 4.00
    Overall score: 1.32

    That explains a lot . . .

  26. Self-Kindness: 3.40
    Self-Judgment: 2.00
    Common Humanity: 2.25
    Isolation: 3.00
    Mindfulness: 3.75
    Over-Identification: 2.25
    Overall score: 3.36

    Ok, I did far better than I thought. I really feel that since starting violin lessons 3 years ago within the Suzuki Method and doing the lessons with my 8 year old daughter in tandem (she gets 1 hour and I get 1/2 hours), that that has raised my overall score. There is little doubt that these music lessons have positively affected self-compassion for me…and for my daughter. Violin is so hard to learn that without self compassion it would be practically impossible to motivate my daughter and myself.

  27. Self-Kindness: 1.00
    Self-Judgment: 5.00
    Common Humanity: 1.25
    Isolation: 5.00
    Mindfulness: 2.50
    Over-Identification: 4.00
    Overall score: 1.46

    Yeah… I beat myself up a lot… I need to work on this.

  28. Self-Kindness: 1.80
    Self-Judgment: 4.00
    Common Humanity: 1.75
    Isolation: 4.50
    Mindfulness: 2.25
    Over-Identification: 4.00
    Overall score: 1.88

    I was going to say pretty bad, but I have to be compassionate, so I’ll say I’m working on it!

    Love your blog posts. They ALWAYS help.

  29. (I am an opera singer. Been working on self-compassion for years, mostly with my therapist!)

    Self-Kindness: 2.80
    Self-Judgment: 3.60
    Common Humanity: 2.50
    Isolation: 4.25
    Mindfulness: 2.75
    Over-Identification: 3.50
    Overall score: 2.45

  30. Self-Kindness: 1.80
    Self-Judgment: 3.80
    Common Humanity: 1.25
    Isolation: 4.50
    Mindfulness: 2.50
    Over-Identification: 3.50
    Overall score: 1.96

  31. Self-Kindness: 3.00
    Self-Judgment: 2.60
    Common Humanity: 4.25
    Isolation: 2.75
    Mindfulness: 4.25
    Over-Identification: 3.25
    Overall score: 3.48

    Very interesting because I think two weeks ago my isolation score would be a lot higher. I was surprised that common humanity and mindfulness came out on top, surprised at how accurate the test is because that is me exactly.

    I think that having self-compassion is a good thing, recently I have been focusing on getting all fear out of my life. That has really been liberating and I recommend more people do it because fear takes enjoyment out of life.

  32. Self-Kindness: 2.20
    Self-Judgment: 2.60
    Common Humanity: 1.75
    Isolation: 3.75
    Mindfulness: 1.75
    Over-Identification: 2.75
    Overall score: 2.43

  33. Eeeep….

    Self-Kindness: 1.20
    Self-Judgment: 5.00
    Common Humanity: 1.00
    Isolation: 4.25
    Mindfulness: 1.50
    Over-Identification: 4.50
    Overall score: 1.32

  34. Self-Kindness: 2.80
    Self-Judgment: 3.20
    Common Humanity: 3.00
    Isolation: 3.50
    Mindfulness: 3.00
    Over-Identification: 4.00
    Overall score: 2.68

    These scores after several years of therapy focusing on self-care and self-compassion. 🙂 I am still improving, especially since doing more teaching and less performing.

  35. Self-Kindness: 4.60
    Self-Judgment: 1.60
    Common Humanity: 3.25
    Isolation: 2.25
    Mindfulness: 4.00
    Over-Identification: 2.75
    Overall score: 3.88

    I love this article, thank you. After struggling for years, I switched from a classical music instrument (flute) to a Japanese instrument (shakuhachi), which totally changed my approach of learning/practicing/performing/teaching/music… and my entire life. Nice to see in the scores of this test that I’m on the right way. Although or because this flute is the most difficult I have ever tried (I have quite a collection), it shows you the path to self-compassion and rewards you greatly. Now I can even play my first flute again, put things into perspective and feel a lot of better with it 🙂

  36. Thank you all for sharing your scores!

    I was particularly curious about Isolation subscale scores (1=high self-compassion, and 5=low self-compassion), because the feedback I’ve often gotten from students in my classes is that they get a lot more out of the group setting of the class than they anticipated. That hearing their peers express the same doubts, fears, and worries they have (vs. me trying to reassure them) helped them realize that their experience isn’t so unusual – and they aren’t nearly as alone as they might sometimes feel.

    I wonder if there’s a meaningful way to do something along these lines in the context of studio or performance classes?

  37. Self-Kindness: 1.20
    Self-Judgment: 5.00
    Common Humanity: 2.50
    Isolation: 5.00
    Mindfulness: 2.25
    Over-Identification: 4.50
    Overall score: 1.57

    Self compassion is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember. I have always relied on that constantly criticizing, degrading voice in my head to give me the motivation to get to the practice room at 8am every day and practice my clarinet until my wrists are aching horribly and I hate myself & my inability to play things perfectly. For a long time, I felt that success wasn’t possible without that dark voice… that all of my successes as a performer had happened because of that voice. So, that incessant need for self degradation became a part of me.

    Out of the blue one afternoon, my director asked to speak to me privately right after a wind symphony rehearsal. He voiced some concerns about me and the fact that he could tell that I was constantly “beating up on myself”. I brushed it off as nothing and assured him I was fine. But, he found ways to continue pestering me about it both after rehearsals and through technology. Every so often, he would send me a text message reminding me to be kind to myself. For the first time, I took a step back and began to consider what he was talking about. But despite his advice, I still felt self degradation was my only key to success.

    During my final semester as an undergraduate, that need for self degradation was no longer helping me attain success. It sent me into a very dark place that I could no longer escape. I stopped sleeping. I forgot to eat. I isolated myself from my friends & colleagues. After rehearsals, I would run to a practice room and berate myself for every minuscule imperfection that had happened. By the end of the semester, I couldn’t physically play my clarinet because in that insatiable need for perfection, I had injured myself. Everything fell apart.

    Nowadays, I can look back on it and know that I had self degraded myself into depression. I don’t like to dwell on it, but it makes me sad. It was my final semester of my undergraduate career, and I spent most of it angry, sad, and tired. But worst of all, I stopped enjoying what I was doing.

    Self compassion is what helped me begin to recover from my wrist injury, and it helped me become more aware of that dark voice in my head. Although I am still incredibly self-judging and am still a perfectionist, I am able to step back now and realize that I’m human and hating myself for that one blip among a million other beautiful notes isn’t going to help me improve. Forgiveness is key, and I then go (calmly) practice some more. Self compassion helps me slow down and be patient. It helps me say “Ok. This isn’t really happening yet, but it’s fine. I’ll keep working hard, and I know that it will eventually happen.”

    As performers, we are incredibly lucky to have the privilege & opportunity to make music both as soloists and within high-quality ensembles. Reeds are not perfect, fingers sometimes don’t always do what they’re supposed to do, and articulation technique is a beast. But, that’s what practicing is for. The motivation to work hard should not come from a dark voice that constantly tells us that we are dreadful and that we must get better so that we can avoid “failure”. We must work hard so that we can attain an extraordinary level of music-making. Music isn’t about perfection– if that were true, music would just be synthesized!

    1. Wow. Thank you for sharing your story. I definitely can identify with you. Your last statement is particularly powerful- it is true!

  38. Self-Kindness: 2.40
    Self-Judgment: 3.80
    Common Humanity: 2.25
    Isolation: 2.75
    Mindfulness: 2.50
    Over-Identification: 3.50
    Overall score: 2.52

    Wow, thought I thought I wasn’t so critical about myself. That’s low as hell to me LOL. I definitely need to improve my score and lower my self judgement somehow.

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