5 Self-Compassion Tips to Help You Set and Reach Goals

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
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When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, it seems like people either love them or hate them.

The concept of “new year, new you” can be especially divisive, with some folks making the phrase a motivational mantra while others deem it a marketing myth meant to sell gym memberships and diet products.  

But, like most things, resolutions aren’t all good or bad. Rather, what you get out of them comes in part from how you think about them.  

“It depends on how you hold it. There’s the optimistic side that you are not determined by past experiences and behaviors; you can have different outcomes and new behaviors. The negative side is when you think you’re not good enough or that you have to become a different person to be acceptable,” says Jane Compson, an associate professor of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington Tacoma, who researches and teaches self-compassion.  

So, how do you accept yourself as you are and work toward who you want to become? One possible answer: self-compassion. 

What is self-compassion? 

Compson notes self-compassion is defined by leading expert Kristin Neff as a process of turning compassion inward, including being kind instead of judgmental to yourself, remembering that suffering and inadequacy are parts of the shared human experience, and being mindful instead of ignoring or over-identifying with emotions.  

Say you have a goal of exercising in the new year. Practicing self-compassion might look like: 

  • Starting with kindness (“I want to exercise for my health. This is a way I can care for myself” versus “I’m so lazy. I won’t be good/attractive/worthy enough if I don’t workout”). 
  • Remembering common humanity (“Starting a new workout routine is hard. It’s normal to struggle with this” versus “Everyone else has a fitness routine. I’m the only one dropping the ball. I’m the worst.”)   
  • Being mindful (“I’m feeling frustrated with how challenging this is and how long it’s taking to see results. This emotion will pass, but it’s OK that I feel this way right now” versus “This is frustrating, and I can’t stand it. Why did I ever think I could do this goal?” or, alternatively, “I shouldn’t be feeling frustrated, things aren’t that bad.”) 

Compson puts it simply: “Self-compassion is cutting yourself some slack.”  

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Can self-compassion help you set and achieve goals? 

Many people can be wary of practicing self-compassion because they believe their inner critic is what motivates them to improve. But the research says otherwise. 

If you make a mistake and then automatically criticize yourself, this negative self-talk can actually cause you to abandon your goal, says Ty Lostutter, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. Self-compassion disrupts this process. 

This phenomenon is called the abstinence violation effect and comes from addiction research, Lostutter explains. It might look like someone who has a drink, beats themselves up for it, and then ends up relapsing to cope. Applied to the exercise goal, this might mean someone skips a workout, beats themselves up about it, and then binges Netflix to deal with feelings of shame or guilt.   

“Research has moved into mindfulness-based relapse prevention. It’s the idea that teaching concepts of self-compassion and being kind to yourself helps prevent relapse,” Lostutter says.  

Studies have shown people perform better and are more engaged and productive (not to mention more joyful) when they are kind to themselves. Self-compassion allows you to embrace where you are at, accept that sometimes you will make mistakes and nevertheless work toward behavior changes you find valuable. 

How to use self-compassion to help you set and keep your resolutions  

Self-compassion helps break through black-or-white thinking and can give you a more nuanced view of New Year’s resolutions. Namely, you can have resolutions for the new year and be worthy of self-love now.  

Compson and Lostutter share tips on how to be more self-compassionate when thinking about your resolutions. 

  • Acknowledge that behavior change is challenging. New year, new you ads can make changing your habits seem quick and easy, but it’s not. Naming this up front will prevent you from being surprised later or derailed by missteps.  
  • Set SMART goals. You want to make manageable goals that can help you build momentum and confidence as you achieve them. To do this, select goals that are SMART or specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound.  
  • Align your goals with your values. It’s also worth considering the why behind your goal. If you are choosing your resolution because you think it’s what your mom/boss/society wants from you, it’s less likely to stick — and more likely to be harmful if you’re constantly judging yourself by someone else’s standards.   
  • Speak to yourself the way you would a beloved friend. Remember, negative self-talk isn’t helpful in reaching your goals. Switch up the inner dialogue by thinking about what you would say to your friend in the same scenario. If you mess up on a goal, are feeling down or need encouragement, talk to yourself with the same tone and language you would your friend.  
  • Celebrate your successes. Yes, even the small ones. Allow yourself to recognize the hard work you are putting in and feel good about it. If you make a tough decision to align with your values and goals, acknowledge to yourself that you’re making progress and achieving the difficult work of behavior change. You are taking steps toward where you want to be, which is incredible. Let yourself feel that.