Why You Should Be Kind….To YourSELF!

By Shlomo Maital  

Prof. Kristin Neff

  When you screw up – as I often do, as we all do, regularly – do you beat yourself up?  Because if you do, U. of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff has some advice:  Stop!

  Most psychological theories assume that “individuals are primarily self-interested”, she notes, in a 2003 article.[1]   A corollary of this:  “people are often much harsher and unkind toward themselves than they ever would be to others they cared about, or even to strangers”.  

   Is that bad?  Is it bad to set higher standards for our own self?  It is.  Be kinder to yourself. “…Having self-compassion entails forgiving one’s failings and foibles, respecting oneself as a fully human – and therefore limited and imperfect – being.

    Forgiving yourself diminishes egoism.  Why?  “When the self is harshly judged for its failings, in the belief self-flagellation will force change and improvement, the protective functions of the ego will often act to screen inadequacies from self-awareness.   ….By giving compassion to oneself, one provides the emotional safety needed to see the self more clearly without fear of self-condemnation.”   This enables us, Neff notes, to change how we think, feel and act more efficiently.  If you beat yourself up badly for a screw-up,  next time your clever brain may simply protect you from doing so, avoiding the distress.

    In the excellent Hidden Brain podcast, produced by Harvard psychologist Shankar Vedantem,[2]  Neff explains there are there components to self-compassion:   self-kindness, avoiding harsh self-criticism; common humanity – perceiving one’s experiences as part of life’s great human canvas; and mindfulness – keeping painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness, rather than overstressing them. 

     Neff builds on and extends the work of psychotherapist Carl Rogers.  Rogers wanted people to have “unconditional positive regard” toward themselves.  Not unconditional positive judgments of oneself —   but to be “more self-acceptant, more self-expressive, less defensive and more open – free to change and to grow and move in directions natural to the human organism.”

    Imagine, if we all embraced Neff’s advice, and created what she calls “a kinder, less self-absorbed, less isolated and more emotionally functional populace”. 


[1] Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.

[2] https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/being-kind-to-yourself/