“That presentation was a disaster.”
“No matter what I do, it’s not good enough.”
“My product is a failure.”
“I’m a failure.”
It’s hard to imagine a friend or colleague talking to you this way.
And yet, we talk to ourselves like this all the time.
Navigating the highs and lows of running a startup can be emotional. And the highs are definitely high — building something from nothing and watching your vision unfold is thrilling.
But setbacks, while inevitable, can be devastating. It’s easy to fall into a habit of negative self-talk when it feels like any false step will sink you.
It might seem like unleashing our inner Bob Knight will motivate us to do better. But in fact, experts say the opposite is true.
Since I started JotForm, we’ve grown to 5.2 million users. Even so, I’ve often been my own worst critic, telling myself I should be reaching my goals sooner and scaling up faster.
It’s taken 13 years, but I’ve learned to stop listening to that harsh inner-chatter and start cultivating an attitude of kindness.
Learning self-compassion is a journey that takes time, but we can all do it.
What is self-compassion?
Let’s start with what self-compassion is not. It’s not self-esteem, which usually involves judging ourselves in relation to others.
The problem with self-esteem, says Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and pioneer in self-compassion research, is that it’s unsustainable.
For high-achievers, the bar is set so high that messing up becomes inevitable. Setbacks and mistakes are internalized as failures, rather than necessary steps toward growth.
While self-esteem is often based on external circumstances working in our favor, self-compassion creates a sense of self-worth that allows us to be kind to ourselves all the time — even in the face of challenges.
According to Neff, there are three key components to self-compassion:
Kindness: Self-compassion means being supportive of ourselves when we hit an obstacle, rather than being self-critical. Think about how you’d treat a friend in such a situation, and offer the same kindness to yourself.
Humanity: It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re the only ones failing. But it’s important to take a step back and realize that we’re not alone: Everyone struggles from time to time.
Mindfulness: Taking a pause to notice your thoughts helps to balance them. When we observe our emotions from a distance, it becomes easier to put negative thoughts in perspective, rather than letting them take over.
A growth vs. a fixed mindset
Self-criticism is a motivational strategy often ingrained in us at an early age. But as Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal points out in her book, The Willpower Instinct,
“study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control.”
In building JotForm,I realized that by unfairly comparing myself to more established entrepreneurs, I was actually draining my energy. In order to grow my business in a scalable way, I learned I had to stop dwelling on others’ successes and focus on what I was doing right.
Self-improvement means assessing ourselves in a realistic way, starting with our strengths and limitations. Telling ourselves we’re better than we are can lead to complacency, but the opposite can lead to defeatism.
One of the major misconceptions of self-compassion is that being kinder to ourselves will make us lazy; that it will dull our competitive edge.
But in fact, the opposite is true.
In fact, there are neurological effects of telling ourselves we’re the worst: Excessive self-criticism can actually inhibit the brain from allowing us to take action and reach our goals.
Those who treat themselves compassionately are better able to evaluate themselves realistically, which also gives them a foundation to work on weaknesses rather than give up.
This is what Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, calls a “growth mindset,” versus a “fixed mindset.” Those with a fixed mindset see their abilities as hard-and-fast. By contrast, those with a growth mindset see opportunities to improve and are more willing to put in the work to do so.
Self-compassionate people are more emotionally resilient. They understand that failure is part of the game. When setbacks do arise, they are more likely to learn something from the experience and try again.
Rather than beating yourself up over a botched presentation or an unpleasant client meeting, think about what you can learn, and bring that lesson to the next one.
In studying what makes the most effective teams, Google found a surprising result: Psychological safety, defined as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up” was key to making a team operate successfully.
But building an atmosphere of psychological safety begins with how we treat ourselves.
Research has shown that when leaders practice a growth-mindset, they’re more likely to pay attention to the performance of their employees, and offer useful guidance on how they can improve.
On the other end, subordinates reporting to managers with growth mindsets are not only more motivated and satisfied, but they’re also more apt to adopt a growth mindset themselves. One study, conducted by Jonathan Haidt at NYU, found that the more employees look up to their leaders, particularly as it relates to their compassion and kindness, the more loyal they will be.
This goes back to Google’s finding that psychological safety allows teams to flourish, though it also works the other way around.
Neurosurgeon Dr. James Doty, who runs Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, says that responding angrily to a colleague not only erodes loyalty and trust, but kills creativity by elevating their stress levels.
“Creating an environment where there is fear, anxiety and lack of trust makes people shut down,” he said.
“If people have fear and anxiety, we know from neuroscience that their threat response is engaged, their cognitive control is impacted. As a consequence, their productivity and creativity diminish.”
Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned since starting my company have come from allowing myself to see my mistakes in a gentler light. This kinder approach to my own mistakes helps reinforce trust among my team, and motivates everyone to improve.
Authenticity and freedom
Self-compassion is a useful tool for boosting productivity. But it can also help us take stock of our careers in a big-picture way.
Studies have shown that self-compassion can help us seek out roles that fit our personalities and values, a term that psychologists call “authenticity.”
If you miss a major deadline or target, the grounding we find in self-compassion can make it easier to focus on hitting that goal next quarter. But perhaps more importantly, it allows us to honestly evaluate whether this is the right job in the first place.
People tend to feel trapped in jobs where they feel out of place, judged by colleagues and worried about their contributions and worth. Self-compassion can help to take a clear-eyed look at professional trajectories and make adjustments when necessary.
The most important thing to remember is that self-compassion isn’t about letting yourself off easy. It’s about giving yourself the chance to improve, and interpreting your successes and failures in a level-headed way.
After almost two decades as an entrepreneur, I’ve realized that success isn’t defined by reaching the top of TechCrunch or disrupting industries — it’s about creating a company that allows people to feel fulfilled inside and outside of work.
By silencing those negative thoughts, we find the space to live life on our own terms.