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Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
• November 18, 2022

“I’m so stupid.” 

Do you ever have that thought? Or mutter those words out loud when you make a mistake or can’t figure something out?  

“I’m such a loser.” 

In moments of frustration, many of us use self-demeaning expressions or blurt out, “I’m so angry with myself!”   

Our kids are watching and listening when we fail to offer ourselves compassion — the kindness, caring and understanding we might offer a friend or even a stranger. When we beat ourselves up, our children through our example learn to be hard on themselves when they misstep or fail to reach a goal. 

What we want for them instead is self-compassion, arguably the greatest emotional buffer against the toxic shame and unworthiness that can so easily be triggered by the disappointments and frustrations that are part of everyone’s life (Feeling Worthy).   

Research has revealed that people who give themselves a break and accept their own imperfections — people with self-compassion — tend to have less depression and anxiety, are happier and more socially accepted, and actually have higher standards than people who are critical of themselves. Isn’t this what we want for our kids? 

Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin and a researcher in the area of self-compassion, says that most people fear that self-compassion will become self-indulgence, leading us to lower our standards.i Many people mistakenly believe that being self-critical keeps us striving to be our best. On the contrary, her research has found that when we’re harshly self-critical, we become discouraged, which leaves us less likely to strive to do better next time. By contrast, self-compassion encourages rather than discourages; it motivates and serves to bring out the best in us. 

If self-compassion can motivate us, it can do the same for our children once they learn to offer it to themselves. Here are some ways to model self-compassion for your kids: 

  • Catch yourself in the act of beating yourself up and let the children hear you retract your words. “Oh, I shouldn’t talk that way. We all make mistakes, it’s part of being human.” 
  • After you’ve been harsh with the kids, apologize to them without berating yourself. Show them that you’re gently self-accepting of your missteps while still acknowledging your error. 
  • Casually mention to the children a mistake you made recently, using words and tones that convey self-acceptance and understanding. Repeat from time to time. 
  • Take the Self-Compassion Survey to see where you rank along the self-compassion continuum. Use the survey items to guide you toward a more self-compassionate style.ii 
  • Watch one father model self-compassion for his daughter while he struggles with an unfortunate misstep he made (Modeling Vulnerability).  

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.

During Dr. Cooper’s forty plus years as a psychotherapist, he has been exposed to a great many therapeutic approaches and schools of thought and has assembled his own eclectic framework. How he approaches couples counseling differs in some ways from how he approaches family and individual therapy, but all his work is informed by the belief that our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships — and so are critically important to understand.
References & Citations

i Parker-Pope, T. (2011) Go Easy on Yourself, a New Wave of Research Urges, The New York Times

ii Neff, K., Dr. (2021) The Self-Compassion Test.