Missed a big work deadline? Said the wrong thing at an important meeting? Forgot to reply to an urgent email? Despite all of our hard work and good intentions, mistakes and failures happen to the best of us. So what do we do when the worst happens?

There’s no getting around it, failing at a goal feels bad. We have all experienced the negative emotions that come with a work-related mishap, and we all have our own ways of coping (mint-choc-chip is one of my go-to’s!). However, research suggests that some ways of coping may be better than others at allowing us to bounce back and learn from our mistakes. 

Researchers carried out a review of multiple studies looking at how people respond when a project they are working on fails. They discovered that people who are high in self-compassion (i.e. a positive attitude towards the self) cope with project failure in a more productive way than do people low in self-compassion (e.g. people who are hard on themselves).

More specifically, people who are self-compassionate still experience negative emotions associated with failure, but the feeling is less intense, and they are better able to learn from their mistakes.  What’s more, in addition to helping when you make a mistake, self-compassion is related to other positive outcomes, such as reduced depression and anxiety, and greater life satisfaction.  

But what does self-compassion look like in practice? People who are self-compassionate tend to be good at one or all of the following:

  • Self-kindness: Rather than being harsh and self-critical, self-kindness involves being kind and understanding towards yourself when you fail at something.
  • Common humanity: Rather than looking at incidents of pain and failure as setting you apart from other people, common humanity involves looking at these experiences as something you have in common with many others.
  • Mindfulness: Rather than exaggerating or pushing away painful thoughts and feelings, mindfulness involves being aware of these in a balanced way.

If you are reading this and thinking, “That’s me!  I do all of those things” then great job – keep doing what you are doing.  If you are like me, your thoughts may be more along the lines of “I’m the exact opposite, I can negatively self-talk in my sleep”, but don’t give up just yet! Research suggests that self-compassion is like a muscle, if you learn the right exercises, and put in the work, you can build up your self-compassion over time. 

So what can you do today to increase your self-compassion? Self-compassion researcher Dr Kristen Neff has set out some useful exercises and guided practices to get you started, including:

  • Thinking about how you would treat a friend if they experienced pain or failure: Would it differ from how you treat yourself? What would change if you responded to yourself in this way?
  • Learning to take note of your emotions.
  • Reframing your inner self-dialogue so that it becomes more encouraging and supportive.
  • Learning how to be self-compassionate at the same time as taking care of others.