So here you are facing final exams and papers, trying for good grades and feeling stressed to the max. Maybe you’re like Janice: She had not done great on her biochem midterm and wanted to ace the final, but was struggling. Early on in college, Janice got mad at herself for any low grades and berated herself for being stupid as she studied. “So then, to deal with feeling bad I would take a break and watch five hours of TV and then I would feel terrible and beat myself up about that, too.” It had been a vicious cycle, but Janice managed to break out of it and get better grades with one simple strategy: Kindness.
No kidding, research shows that kindness toward yourself supports academic improvement better than being mean. Of course being kind to yourself feels way better, too, which might make you think that self-compassion is just a bunch of self-delusional fluff indulged in by students who aren’t serious about their studies. That’s what Janice thought at first. While it doesn’t feel good, she thought that academic success required her to yell at herself for every little mistake she made or how else would she learn and succeed? But the truth is, not only is it not necessary, it’s actually counterproductive. When Janice started coaching herself with kindness, she was able to take mistakes in stride and study longer and harder. Her grades improved and so did her sense of well-being.
What you can say to yourself to Coach Yourself with Kindness:
- Good job starting that problem set.
- Nice work outlining that essay.
- You’ve got this, buddy, just do the easiest problems first, then go back to the hard ones.
- Just start by writing any old sentence.
- This is really hard but I know you have the ability to do it, why not get some extra help?
- That’s okay, on to the next, everybody has a bad day sometimes.
- Messing up is part of learning.
- Yes, you do deserve that study break, ten minutes and then right back at it.
- Great job turning off Netflix until after you finish your exams.
- I bet you could finish reviewing your notes before going out, want to give it a try?
- Hey, let’s go to that optional review session.
- I know you don’t feel like it, but let’s stick with your goal of writing five pages today.
- Great job reviewing your notes, want to go back to that part that was kind of hard?
- Hey, after finishing this section, how about going out for ice cream?
The reality is, once you leave home, you become your own parent. You are your own coach in the game of life. And you get to decide what kind of a parent or coach you want to be to yourself. Who was your favorite coach or teacher? The kind of person who gets you to do well and also to feel good. What did you love about what they did? How did Coach Martinez make you feel proud of your abilities and willing to give it all you had even when you were dog-tired? What made you want to do a great job on that report for Ms. Wang? If your life hasn’t yet given you any coaches, teachers, or parents who have the do well/feel good touch, no worries: let yourself imagine such a person. That’s who you get to channel when you coach yourself.You don’t have to tell anyone that you are coaching yourself with kindness. Maybe you need to be tough on the outside so you don’t get pushed around. You don’t need to let on that you are saying to yourself, “Good job. You’ve got this, buddy. That’s okay, on to the next, everybody has a bad day sometimes.”
Bottom line: Kindness works. Beating yourself up is not as effective as being kind to yourself in terms of academic success.
 Breines J.G., Chen S. Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation
(2012) Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38 (9), 1133-1143.