How to Gain Motivation Through Self-Compassion

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Self-Compassion" by Kristin Neff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you been feeling unambitious lately? How can you gain motivation?

Feeling unmotivated makes anybody feel dull and sluggish. Luckily, Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion says that practicing self-compassion helps increase motivation.

Let’s look at how to gain motivation through the power of self-compassion.

Self-Compassion Fosters Motivation

Neff says that the practice of self-compassion can help you learn how to gain motivation because it’s rooted in an intrinsic desire to learn, grow, and cultivate a sense of well-being over the long term. As a result, people who practice self-compassion are inclined to consistently act in ways that put them on the path towards health and happiness—for example, by changing bad habits that take them off course from these goals. Being kind to yourself in the face of suffering further supports motivation by enabling you to create a safe, calm, and supportive environment that nurtures confidence, supports risk taking, and enables you to function at your peak.

(Shortform note: Public health experts say that another way to increase your motivation is by practicing gratitude. They argue that your intrinsic motivation may be strengthened through the same part of the brain activated by gratitude. They note that while no studies definitively connect gratitude and motivation, research does tie gratitude to a desire to give back.)

Neff’s research supports the connection between self-compassion and motivation, finding that self-compassionate people: 

  • Have just as high standards for themselves as self-critical people.
  • Are more likely to have concrete plans to achieve their goals, and more inclined towards personal growth, than people who judge themselves harshly.
  • Are more forgiving of themselves when they don’t meet their standards and goals, seeing failure not as evidence of their low self-worth but as an opportunity to learn and grow—which improves their achievement of goals in the long run. 

(Shortform note: Experts say you can take three concrete steps to use self-compassion to motivate yourself. First, keep an eye out for your inner critic so you can question negative self-talk that’s working against your goals. Second, recognize that your negative self-talk comes from a positive place—the desire to succeed—even though it’s doing a poor job of communicating that to you. Third, reframe your negative self-talk with kind, affirming messages.)

Neff says there’s a broadly held, erroneous assumption that self-compassion will make you lazy and unmotivated and that being tough on yourself is the only way to achieve your goals and find success. But the only way that self-criticism “works” to the extent that it does is by instilling fear—a known driver of anxiety that actually distracts from the task at hand and makes it difficult to function at your peak. Further, self-criticism prompts some people to employ self-sabotaging strategies to try to protect themselves from criticism and judgment, which often backfires and leaves them worse off.

For example, if you’re worried you won’t perform well in an upcoming competition, you may decide not to practice too hard, or to procrastinate until it’s too late for your efforts to be effective. Then, when you perform poorly, you have an excuse for why: “I barely practiced.” Of course, the problem is you employed strategies destined to lead to failure.

Use Anxiety for Good 

Though self-criticism may be a poor motivational tool because it causes anxiety, experts say there are ways to use anxiety to your benefit

  • Reframe anxiety from a negative into a positive indicator of how much you care about something.
  • See anxiety, and the fight or flight response that it sometimes triggers, as a messenger making you aware of possible danger.
  • Use the energy that anxiety gives you to drive you toward action. 
  • Capitalize on the fact that anxiety can boost your attention and the functioning of your memory. 
  • Enjoy the immunity boost you get when anxiety, in small doses, triggers cortisol.
How to Gain Motivation Through Self-Compassion

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Here's what you'll find in our full Self-Compassion summary:

  • The key practices, benefits, and obstacles to embracing self-compassion
  • How self-compassion can improve your relationships with others
  • The two biggest obstacles to self-compassion and how to overcome them

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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