Self-Compassion and High Performance Standards: Are They Compatible?

“Compassion is the antitoxin of the soul: where there is compassion even the most poisonous impulses remain relatively harmless.”

— Eric Hoffer, American writer

I frequently hear musicians beating themselves up in a litany of “I’m not good enough,” “I’m the worst in my studio or chamber group,” “there’s something wrong with me,” “I’m a failure if I mess up in performance (or during practice),” and “If I’m not hard on myself, I’d never get anything done.”

A large body of research now points to self-compassion as the antidote to this self-berating behavior. But how can treating ourselves with compassion lead to the requirement to perform music at near-perfect quality, often under high pressure? Can a kind word – inside our own minds – help us play with more enjoyment, more serenity, and a sense of belonging in our ensembles?

What Is Self-Compassion?

Self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, the world’s foremost researcher on this subject, has three components:

Mindfulness: to notice and name our pain or suffering, neither denying nor exaggerating it.

Kindness: to feel a desire to help, ameliorate suffering; to be as gentle and non-judgmental with ourselves as we would with a friend; to actively comfort ourselves, especially when our pain is caused by our own missteps.

Shared humanity: to recognize that we aren’t alone in our imperfection, fragility, and flaws; to perceive our experience in the greater, common human experience.

When parents use criticism, children assume criticism is an expedient and unavoidable motivational mechanism. Research shows that children who grow up with critical parents become not only critical of others, but also critical of themselves. If we beat ourselves up on a regular basis, we are actually trying, in a distorted way, to protect ourselves from more criticism and harm.

Self-criticism, which is also associated with depression, undermines our own abilities and harms us rather than helps us do our best. In contrast, self-confidence and believing in our own abilities have a significant impact in reaching our goals.

Comparing Self-Compassion with Self-Esteem

Researchers are realizing they may have been measuring the wrong thing for decades when investigating whether self-esteem leads to happy and successful lives.

Negative aspects of self-esteem include narcissism, self-absorption, prejudice, discrimination, anger, anxiety, and depression. Self-compassion has the same benefits of self-esteem without these drawbacks, offering the same protection against harsh self-criticism without the need to see oneself as perfect or better than others.

Self-compassion is available to us on good days and bad, when we make errors, and when we struggle. Rather than judging, comparing, or evaluating, we can be self-relating with kindness and gentleness. Solid and stable, self-compassion is available both when you succeed and when you fail.

Negativity Bias of the Brain

Why do we find it so easy to be kind and caring to our friends when they fail at a goal, but so difficult to do the same for ourselves? The natural brain has what is called a negativity bias: simply, negative events are more dominant than positive ones. Prehistorically, it was more important for early humans to notice a dangerous animal than to perceive a beautiful flower. Even when children are disciplined in a loving way, they might interpret parental or teacher signals to mean something bad. Consequently, the percentage of negative thoughts the average person thinks every day is approximately 80%. While this is normal, it is not helpful for a musician who needs to develop self-confidence. Our task as adults is to change that negativity bias, and this is entirely possible due to the brain’s ability to be changed (neuroplasticity).

Will We Become Lazy Bums If We Practice Self-Compassion?

This is a big concern that is often expressed by my clients who believe that only by being hard on themselves can they accomplish anything. Indulgence is a short-term pleasure: is this the same as a long-term harm? For example, if you get a massage or let yourself move on after an error, isn’t this really helping you rather than something you can’t afford? You don’t need to let a negativity bias take over. Compassion is always aimed at wellbeing.

Is Self-Berating the Only Way to Get Your Practice Done?

Self-berating produces stress. It causes your body to shut down, your mind to lose faith in yourself, depression, and illness. Self-criticism makes you afraid of failure. Instead, when we soothe ourselves via self-compassion, we feel safe and we calm down our nervous system. Only in an internal environment of safety, positivity, relaxation, and support can we ever truly grow or learn productively. Research shows that self-compassionate people are just as likely to have high standards, that they are better able to see possibilities for change, and can actually take those steps for themselves.

As Kristin Neff states, self-compassion is a more effective motivator than self-criticism, because the driving force of self-compassion is love, not fear. Self-criticism asks: Am I good enough? Self-compassion asks: What’s good for me?

Are You Being Self-Critical Right Now Because You’re Not Self-Compassionate?

When I ask this question at my self-compassion workshops, everyone laughs, which tells me that the answer is “yes” for most people. If this is true for you, try being self-compassionate for your self-critic. Your self-critic may be trying to keep you safe, but it is doing this in a futile way.

Other Results of Self-Compassion

One of the most consistent findings in the research is that self-compassionate people tend to be less anxious and depressed, which means that self-compassion protects us from anxiety and depression. When we stop judging and evaluating ourselves, we don’t need to worry so much about others’ approval. We work from internal rather than external motivation. When something goes wrong, as it often will, we don’t think that we are abnormal if we’re not perfect. We don’t imagine something is wrong with us. Imperfection is supposed to happen, just as there are shadow and light in the world.

We don’t need to get rid of stress. Small amounts are motivating and part of real life. We have deadlines, recitals, auditions, concerts, and competitions. The trick is not to create overwhelming stress.

How Can We Learn the Skills of Self-Compassion?

Some of them are listed in the sidebar accompanying this article. It’s easier than you think: you’ve been doing it all along for others. Perhaps you can start by talking to yourself, sympathetically, like this:

I’m here for you. I’m so sorry it’s difficult right now. Everyone hurts like this sometimes. I love myself. I love myself even if I messed up. I don’t want Me to hurt. I deserve kindness from myself no matter what. I’m going to take a minute now to go deep inside to feel that place where I am pure Goodness.

Or say whatever is soothing and comforting to you. At first it may feel awkward to talk to yourself this way, but with practice, it feels … well, wonderful.

When my clients learn to talk to themselves with self-compassion, the results are visible right in front of me. Their bodies relax. They breathe deeper. The stress that only minutes ago tightened their face simply vanishes, replaced by softness, clarity, tranquility, and sometimes a big bright smile. They report feeling hope and confidence whereas only minutes before, they were filled with despair and frustration.

I invite you to flood yourself with self-compassion right now. Recognize your fragility and pain. Love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Feel your connection to humanity. And when you finish reading this article, your more authentic, more loving self will touch everyone around you for days to come, and you will make a difference in the world, starting with yourself.


Take the free Self-Compassion Scale at  

Christopher Germer’s website. Lots of information and guided self-compassion meditations.

Copyright 2014 Helen Spielman

First published in Overtones, The Journal of the World Flute Society, November 2014. Used by permission. Much of the information in this article is taken from or adapted from the books and seminars of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer with gratitude.