Why Self-Compassion is the Magic Ingredient for a Creatively Fulfilled Life

This crucial element of self-care is the antidote to a nasty inner critic.

It’s hard to achieve anything when you’re hard on yourself. Few people understand this concept as much as Lynn Johnson, a former theater teacher and the co-founder of Spotlight:Girls, a benefit corporation based in Oakland, California, that teaches girls who are in elementary school and middle school how to love themselves and others through arts-based summer programs.

One thing that Lynn feels is missing in our cultural messaging today is the idea that it’s okay to try and it’s okay to fail. As she has developed her programming, she has realized that unpacking the idea of self-compassion itself is the key to helping girls move beyond the initial stumbling blocks and achieve real success.

“All types of work, especially creative work, can be really painful. You’re going through all of these iterations. You’re trying to make something work. It’s like a birth. You’re trying to make something that has never existed before,” says Lynn. “Self-compassion is about understanding that a little bit of suffering now and then is part of the process. It’s recognizing that it’s okay to have those feelings—they’re normal and they make you human. It’s about learning how to cope with the suffering and become more resilient.”

That might mean taking a break from the project, or pointing out a good part of the project that you’re proud of to pat yourself on the back, or looking at the big picture and realizing that whatever is frustrating you is likely a small obstacle that you can overcome, rather than a complete roadblock. You can’t change what happens to you, but you can change how you respond to it—and that’s how you bounce back.

And guess what? Her advice works for grown women, just as it does for young people. So instead of giving up, give yourself a reboot. These are some of Lynn’s tips to developing radical self-compassion.

1. Listen to yourself.

As you start to take a look at your inner thoughts, flag any negativity. Are you calling yourself an idiot? Are you saying, “This is the worst thing ever?” Or “What was I thinking?” “I call that voice the Shame Monster,” says Lynn. She recommends acknowledging it and rejecting it by saying, “I hear you, but no thank you. I’m good.” That Shame Monster is trying to protect you from things that are hard and scary, but you need to stand up to it and create a boundary. Just because that voice exists doesn’t mean that you have to listen to it or let it overtake your self-esteem.

2. Be patient.

One strategy that may help is to remember that even the most accomplished people in the world were once beginners in their fields, and even the most successful people have failed—usually many, many times. Ira Glass, the founder of the radio show and podcast This American Life, once shared his thoughts on the creative process. He has said: “All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.” The way to get past it, he says, is to give yourself deadlines and do a lot of work. Through that volume of work, you can close the gap. “I have a quote that often think of when I’m frustrated. It says: ‘You’re doing everything right. Keep going,'” says Lynn. “It reminds me not to doubt myself and to keep pushing through something, even if it feels like a mess.”

3. Write down your mistakes.

Lynn and her girls create something called the “Tower of Oops.” It’s a ritual in which they all write mistakes that they’ve made and then they throw the pieces of paper into the tower. The tower then holds those mistakes, so the girls no longer have to. It’s a physical exercise with mental implications—and there’s no reason that adults can’t try this, too. Write down a mistake on a piece of paper, throw it into a garbage can, and feel it release itself from your psyche. Let it go. And move on. After all, you’re human.

4. Channel positivity.

Lynn uses a concept coined by psychologist Rick Hanson called “taking in the good.” “When you are freaking out about stuff and are able to stop and notice the things you’re grateful for, it really does turn your situation around. You’re able to change your mood almost immediately,” says Lynn. So stop wherever you are and notice the good around you. “The sun is shining, my heart is beating, my dog is really wonderful—whatever it happens to be,” says Lynn. Then, take a moment to really let that sink in. “I picture it as a drop of oil making its way through my body. It feels warm and soothing,” says Lynn.

5. Be empathetic.

When you’re more compassionate toward others, then you’re bound to be more compassionate toward yourself. The next time, say, your child is throwing a tantrum or one of your customers is angry with you about something, before you craft a response, acknowledge that person’s feelings. Try saying something like, “I see that you’re really upset. Is that true?” or “You sound like you’re disappointed.” Labeling the emotion in that way makes the other person feel understood, like they are validated. “That’s the very first step. It gives them a breath, because going right into problem solving isn’t effective if you haven’t first acknowledged the emotion,” says Lynn.

6. Take compliments.

To be frank, women tend to struggle with this. Be honest, how often have you said something like this in response to a compliment:

“I like your shirt.”

“Oh, this is really cheap and old.”

“You look so pretty in that photo.”

“If only I could get back to that weight…”

“Great job on that presentation.”

“Eh, I think I messed up at the end.”

“This tip is very simple,” says Lynn. “Just say thank you—and nothing else.” Period. This may not be easy at first, but practice it until it becomes second nature. “This goes back to taking in the good. When good is being presented to you, accept it and let it in,” she says.