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Failed or given up on your New Year’s resolutions already? Try being kinder to yourself

February 11, 2020
By Heather Herriot

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Many of us enter the New Year with high levels of motivation and inspiration for self-improvement. We might tell ourselves that this is the year we start going the to gym consistently, we'll read more books, eat healthier or spend less time on our phone.

Things may start off well for many of us, but come February, our motivation starts to dwindle and we may have already messed up (i.e. eating way too much pizza on Saturday or accidentally spending our Sunday afternoon staring at our phone). Many may simply give up their goal entirely after a single slip.

Being able to accept and cope with any setbacks and failures is critical to helping us achieve our goals. Therefore, one key factor in helping us develop and maintain new healthy habits involves cultivating a self-compassionate mindset.

Self-compassion involves treating ourselves in the same kind and caring manner that we treat our loved ones.1 It means being able to acknowledge and accept ourselves when we fail or make mistakes without engaging in excessive blame or ruminating on the failure.

Self-compassionate individuals can also recognize that failure is common to the human experience and we all will experience failure throughout our lives. So how exactly does this help us achieve our New Year’s resolutions or any other self-improvement goal?

Well, self-compassion is going to help us come back from any setbacks with compassion instead of criticism and blame. One of the key components of being self-compassionate is being able to have an open and non-judgmental awareness of oneself and all our failures and imperfections.1

When it comes to trying to achieve a goal or develop a new habit, we are not going to be 100 per cent perfect from the moment we set our intention to achieve a goal.

Instead, what often happens is that when we set a goal — for example, attending the gym at least four times a week — there is inevitably going to be unknown barriers and hurdles that arise and may lead to failures toward achieving this goal. We may skip out on the gym when we get busy, sick or have a social event.

People tend to self-pity or over-identify with any failures they make toward their progress. They can see this as evidence they are not able to continue on. But being kind and caring toward ourselves when we fail at something can help us get back on track and feel more motivated to improve.

Let’s examine some of the research on self-compassion in academic success. A study of university students assessed how students were coping with a grade they perceived to be a failure. In this case an ‘F’ could be a failure for one student, but a ‘B’ could be considered a failure for another.2 Self-compassion didn’t actually relate to whether students considered their grade a failure, or the actual grade itself.

However, self-compassionate individuals were more likely to use strategies like positive reinterpretation/growth and acceptance, and less likely to engage in denial or mental disengagement. They also reported having more goals related to skill development rather than performance-related goals.

Some of you could think that being more accepting of themselves could lead to complacency with failure. However, research has been able to demonstrate that self-compassionate people show greater belief and motivation for self-improvement.3

Participants in a study by Breines and Chen were asked to think about a weakness or shortcoming that they didn’t feel good about. Then they induced self-compassion by having some participants write a paragraph about themselves in a way that showed kindness and understanding related to the failure or weakness of theirs (the self-compassion condition).

Other participants were asked to reflect on their positive qualities (the self-esteem condition) or a control condition that had no form of reflection.

All participants were then asked to describe the degree to which they’ve done anything to change their weakness. These responses were then coded for the degree to which they showed a growth-mindset (e.g., “with hard work I can change it” versus “there’s nothing I can do to change this”).

Participants were who were in the self-compassion condition were more likely to show these growth beliefs than both the self-esteem and control condition.

These researchers also conducted another study with a similar self-compassion induction after students completed a challenging vocabulary test.Given that majority of the students performed poorly, they were then given the chance to study to improve their score on a second test. Participants in the self-compassion condition put more effort into studying for the test the second time around compared to a self-esteem or control group.

Overall these studies by Breines and colleagues show that self-compassion doesn’t mean denying or being complacent with failure. Instead, it suggests that confronting ones failures and inadequacies with compassion instead of a critical or judgemental attitude could help someone acknowledge the need for improvement without excessively ruminating or feeling overwhelmed.

Self-compassion could even be helpful when it comes to breaking difficult habits like smoking.

In an intervention study by Kelly and colleagues 126 smokers who wanted to quit were recruited and put into one of four intervention groups.4

One of the groups involved training smokers to engage in self-compassionate imagery and self-talk whenever they felt an urge to smoke over the course of three weeks.

While the self-compassion intervention wasn’t the most effective generally, it was surprisingly most effective for those with personality and motivational traits that made them the least likely to succeed, particularly, those who didn’t feel ready to change and had high self-criticism.

Self-compassion could also help you maintain healthy eating patterns.

In a study by Adams and Leary, women were asked to complete questions about whether they engage in restrictive eating patterns or not.5 Then participants were either given an unhealthy food item, in this case a doughnut, to eat (doughnut condition) or no food (control condition).

For those in the doughnut condition, they were then assigned to one of two conditions: they were either asked to think self-compassionately about having eaten something unhealthy, or had no intervention. Next, all participants were then presented with a fake taste test where they were given three bowls of candy to taste (Reeses’ Popables, ®, Skittles ®, and York Popables ®).

The researchers then measured the amount of candy eaten. Among women who considered themselves restrictive eaters, the self-compassion condition reduced distress following the doughnut condition and reduced the amount of food eaten during the subsequent taste-test condition.

These results suggests that for someone trying to follow a healthy diet who is not very self-compassionate, after failing and eating something unhealthy, they may feel guilty and shameful and continue to eat more to try to soothe any negative emotions.

On the other hand, self-compassionate people seem more likely to forgive themselves for not sticking to their diet and this helps them feel better and be less likely to continue eating and instead feel okay getting back on track.

Overall, these studies show that self-compassion is the key to helping us achieve goals. During any attempt to develop new habits or achieve goals there is going to be some experience of failure along the journey.

How we treat ourselves during these experiences of failure can help set us up to persevere and get back on track towards our goals. Being kind and caring towards oneself can help us cope better and help us maintain adaptive motivation patterns that inspire us to continue to work on self-improvement.

Don’t fret if you don’t think you are particularly self-compassionate at this moment. Self-compassion is modifiable trait!

Interventions have shown that changes in self-compassion are possible.6 When you’re feeling stressed, or after having made a mistake, try to talk to yourself in the same caring way you would talk to a close friend! In addition, a mental health professional is a great resource who can help you cultivate a self-compassionate mindset.

With 2020 flying by already try not to beat yourself up if you feel like you’ve failed at achieving whatever your New Year’s resolution was.

Instead, try to focus on cultivating self-compassion to help you get back on track — it’s never too late!



1 Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self & Identity2(2), 85-101.

2 Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self & Identity, 4(3), 263-287.

3 Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.

4 Kelly, A. C., Zuroff, D. C., Foa, C. L., Gilbert, P. (2009). Who benefits from training in self-compassionate self-regulation? A study of smoking reduction. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 29, 727-755

5 Adams, C. E., Leary, M. R. (2007). Promoting self-compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 26, 1120-1144.

6 Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful self-compassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28-44.


About the author

Heather Herriot is a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Concordia University. She received her Bachelor's with Honours in Psychology from UBC in Vancouver. Heather’s research focuses on the intersection of health, personality, and developmental psychology. She uses longitudinal research to explore how self-compassion can help older adults cope with stress to prevent declines in biomarkers of stress and health, such as cortisol and inflammation.

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