Motivation through self-compassion: How accepting failure can help you find success

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated January 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Failure and mistakes can happen to anyone, regardless of their background. Although it can feel challenging to fail, it’s a part of shared humanity and can also teach lessons. Without experiencing failures, you might struggle to find the motivation to develop, grow, and learn new skills. 

A growing body of research illuminates the power of mindful self-compassion as a key coping strategy in the face of failure. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), self-compassion means more than forgiveness. Self-compassion offers several lasting benefits and can be divided into three key elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Using these tenets as a guide, many psychologists believe individuals can tap into the power of self-compassion to recover from failure and journey toward the type of success they seek. Understanding how to improve your self-compassion skills can help you find success in all areas of your life while boosting your overall well-being.   

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Self-compassion: A recipe for resilience

Self-compassion has roots in multiple religions and philosophies, including Buddhist traditions. Today, it is often used in modern psychology.

The APA describes self-compassion as a non-critical stance toward one’s inadequacies and failures and notes that it’s derived from Buddhist thought traditions.

In spirituality and psychology, the concept of self-compassion is a reminder to show yourself the same kindness and understanding you might extend to a good friend.

Our modern understanding of self-compassion was partly shaped by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer, who co-created research-based strategies to teach self-compassion skills. In Kristen Neff’s work and other psychological research, self-compassion is often linked to resilience, or your ability to adapt to challenging life experiences. Research shows that when an individual is more resilient, they may be better able to respond to upsetting or stressful events positively, effectively, and flexibly. Research shows that resilience is one of the most direct and measurable outcomes when individuals practice self-compassion and mindfulness over time. 

Mindfulness teaches individuals to notice and focus on their feelings, potentially increasing self-compassion. By attending to your feelings and cultivating positive emotions like gratitude, joy, delight, and awe, you can train yourself to be more open to your emotions and potentially boost your life satisfaction.  

Collectively, these outcomes may result in greater resilience and the development of a growth mindset, helping you live a fulfilled life. When you’re more in tune with your emotions, you can develop tools to “shift” your brain out of unwanted self-criticism, which may improve your ability to withstand adverse events and daily stressors.

The relationship between self-compassion, resilience, and motivation

Resilience is a crucial outcome of self-compassion and can also impact motivation. To understand this relationship, it may be helpful to inspect the three main components of self-compassion: 

  • Mindfulness 
  • Shared humanity 
  • Self-kindness 

Mindfulness is the practice of observing your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Mindfulness can help individuals appreciate the challenging and enlightening experiences of shared humanity and the interconnectedness of everyday life. Recognizing that imperfection is a shared human characteristic can help you feel equipped to practice self-kindness, which in turn can improve your self-esteem and limit self-criticism. 

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These three elements comprise self-compassion, which boosts resilience. When unwanted feelings toward yourself are alleviated, you can cultivate the confidence and motivation you need to attempt challenging situations. 

One principle of self-compassion is that failure isn’t a character flaw and can instead be a teacher. Research also finds that when people take an accepting, compassionate approach to personal failure, they may feel more motivated to improve themselves. In a 2012 study, researchers theorized that self-compassion provides a safe, nonjudgmental context for individuals to reflect on unwanted personal traits and strive to improve them in real life. 

Five ways to find success after failure: Self-compassion as motivation

Self-compassion fosters resilience, and resilience can promote the mental flexibility to work through life challenges. If you’re looking for concrete ways to motivate yourself with self-compassion, the following five strategies involve compassion and resilience, helping you grow from failure and build your own definition of success.

Practice acts of self-kindness

For many people, it’s easy to show acts of kindness to loved ones, but extending the same type of kindness to themselves may prove difficult. 

Self-kindness takes many forms, and there’s no one way to prioritize it in your life. In stressful moments, some people might place a gentle hand over their hearts or take a mindful break to enjoy a cup of coffee or a favorite song. These small acts of kindness are opportunities for self-care, and they activate the calming effect of oxytocin, often called the “love hormone,” which is responsible for bonding. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, oxytocin calms and clears the mind. This small but powerful hormone allows you to slow down, reason, and find the motivation and clarity to recover from failure and resolve challenges with more compassion for yourself. 

Develop compassionate mantras for difficult moments

In the immediate aftermath of a failure or setback, you might feel inadequate or self-critical. It’s common to feel a combination of frustration, anger, contempt, and other challenging emotions. 

Many people experience these moments, and while you might find solidarity in shared humanity, it may not always make these moments easier. To prepare for a challenging day, consider developing a personalized set of compassionate words, or mantras, to use while stressed. Possible phrases may include:

  • “May I be kind to myself at this moment?”
  • “May I accept myself as I am in this moment?”
  • “May I give myself all the compassion and patience I need.”

You can expand this list and adapt popular mantras to meet your needs. Research suggests that repeating these phrases to yourself can relieve stress and provide encouragement when making decisions. 

Reframe failure as an opportunity for growth

Self-compassionate individuals may recognize their shortcomings while drawing invaluable lessons from their past failures and repackaging them as motivation to grow. As Kristin Neff writes, “Our success and failures come and go– they neither define us nor do they determine our worthiness.”

How do you “flip” failure into motivation? Adopting this mindset may take some practice, but expert advice recommends asking specific questions about past mishaps to inform your next move. Possible questions include:

  • “What went wrong?”
  • “What could I do differently next time?”
  • “How can I improve my first idea, strategy, or vision?”

Failures can be upsetting, but when you ask yourself honest questions and frame them as an opportunity to learn, they can also be highly motivating.

Open up to other people

To cultivate a sense of shared humanity, consider being vulnerable about your shortcomings, concerns, and hopes, and share them with others. Failure is a shared human experience, and as such, incredibly uniting.

Vulnerability can be scary, but when you open up about your failures, fear, or anxiety with people you trust, you may feel validated and realize you’re partaking in a shared human experience. It may also be motivating. For example, feeling that you have compassionate people on your side who see and support you can remind you to keep going, even when you don’t want to. 

Opening up to people can help to foster positive relationships and support networks. Take a note from a compassionate friend and try to grant the same kindness and grace to yourself when you’re gearing up for your next challenge.

Connect with a therapist

In addition to opening up in their relationships, many people develop a sense of support and motivation through therapy. Licensed therapists are trained to offer compassion and science-backed strategies for mindfulness and fierce self-compassion.

Some people prefer in-person therapy to begin developing their self-compassion. Still, in a digital era, many people use online therapy to maintain their mental health while balancing active lifestyles. Using an online platform like BetterHelp, it’s possible to match with a board-certified therapist within 48 hours and begin scheduling therapy sessions at times that work best for you. Every BetterHelp therapist has at least three years of professional experience, and many are well-versed in self-compassion, mindfulness, and other foundations of mental health. 

Research shows that online therapy can offer the same mental health benefits as face-to-face alternatives. Several studies have assessed the feasibility of online programs to cultivate self-compassion, including a 2021 study of a 10-week online program designed for women. The researchers found that the program significantly increased women’s self-compassion while reducing their feelings of shame, self-judgment, and perfectionism. A combination of online courses and therapist-guided interventions, like internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), could work as available, affordable ways to boost self-compassion while treating the negative effects of perfectionism and shame.

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Takeaway

Self-compassion can take time to nurture, and you might not always get it right. However, you’re human, and finding comfort in the shared human experience of failure can help you approach your setbacks as opportunities to learn, grow, and motivate yourself to pursue your next goal. Incorporating compassion exercises into your life can keep you motivated when you’re going through a hard time.

Your loved ones and therapist can offer an extra boost of encouragement along the way. Self-compassion begins with you. Start by showing kindness toward the people in your life and gradually practicing self-compassion by extending the same warmth, comfort, and care toward yourself.

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