Last updated: Jun 02, 2016

When you screw up—think misplaced keys, missed deadline, missed opportunity—do you accept it as a misstep and move on? Or do you beat yourself up for not being on top of your game?

A team of psychologists recently published findings in the journal Self and Identity that help explain why some of us are prone to do the latter.

For the study, 161 adults between the ages of 17 and 34 completed a questionnaire that measured their capacity for self-compassion. They also filled out a survey about their values, including what they wanted out of life, and the behaviors or traits they believed were necessary to achieve those things.

Finally, the participants were asked to imagine themselves in two scenarios: One in which they acted with self-compassion, and another in which they were self-critical. Then they described how they would feel about themselves after each scenario.

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The researchers found that across the board, the study participants recognized that self-compassion is generally a good thing—but not necessarily for themselves.

Participants who were less self-compassionate thought that practicing self-care would negatively impact their performance. They said being kind to themselves after a failure, rejection, or loss would make them feel less conscientious, less ambitious, and less motivated. They also saw self-criticism as “a sign of strength and responsibility.” In other words, they believed being tough on themselves made them tougher, better, and more driven.

But those folks might want to start cutting themselves some slack: The researchers note that people who are rich in self-compassion typically possess better emotional health. They benefit from higher life satisfaction, and a lower risk of depression and anxiety. They also tend to have a sunnier outlook, and to cope better when crap (inevitably) happens.  

If you're in the habit of treating yourself harshly, try shifting your perspective on what self-criticism actually does for you, suggests Ashwini Nadkarni, MD, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who was not involved in the study. “You might think [being self-critical is] motivating, and in the short term, it can be. But in the long run, the things that you tell yourself—I should be a better mother, I should have a better job—are demoralizing,” she explains. Over time, that type of self-flagellation can lead to burn out, and keep you from reaching the goals you were pushing so hard to achieve in the first place.

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Below, Dr. Nadkarni offers her four-step plan for practicing more self-kindness and understanding:

Be aware. In order to change a behavior, first you need to be convinced it’s a problem. So for one week, write down any self-critical thoughts you notice. 

Talk to yourself like you'd talk to a friend. You are more likely to be kind and empathetic to a loved one. Try treating yourself with the same level of respect. 

Be mindful. Observe your feelings, but don’t judge them. When a self-critical thought pops into your head, recognize it; then refocus your attention to something neutral, like your breath.

Start a journal. When something upsetting happens, write down the most self-compassionate things you can think to say. Ideally, the words will express that you accept yourself exactly as you are, imperfections and all.