This blog was written by Dr. Vivien Lee and originally posted on the official blog for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

“You’re an idiot!”
“You’re such a loser.”
“You’re a total failure.”

Those are some pretty harsh words, aren’t they? Imagine the impact if you said that to a child after he or she failed a test.

Let’s say that little Johnny comes in looking a little tearful.

You: “What’s wrong, Johnny?”
Johnny: (looking down) “I…I failed my math quiz.”
You: “What the hell is wrong with you? How stupid are you?! You’re such an idiot! Smarten up!”

What do think the impact on Johnny will be? Do you think he might say to himself, “Yes, you’re right. I need to study harder. I’m going to do that right now.”

The takeaway message for Johnny will more likely be along the lines of, “I am an idiot. What’s wrong with me? I’m such a failure. What’s the point?”

Most of us try not to say these kinds of things to our children. So, why is it okay to make these kinds of statements to ourselves? Why do we try to choose kind and encouraging words when speaking with others, but save the harshest, cruelest words for ourselves? To put it another way, why do we show compassion to others, but not to ourselves?


The experience of suffering is one that we will all go through at some point in our lives. We will all make mistakes at some point. Every single one of us.

Drs. Kristin Neff and Chris Germer have written about self-compassion which recognizes that each of us suffers, we fail, we mess up, and we all fall short of our or others’ ideals at times. What these psychologists discuss is the need to recognize that we are all human. To move forward, we need to be kind to ourselves. To recognize that others have experienced the same thing. To accept that we are not perfect.

We could kick ourselves over and over and over, but what would that accomplish? We can’t change the past. All we can do is allow ourselves to feel the pain, the hurt, the anger for a while, then learn what we can and move forward.

This doesn’t mean that we can make mistakes willy-nilly or hurt other people and tell ourselves, “oops, I screwed up, oh well”. This means that, despite trying our best, we will all fall on our faces at times.

We can wallow in self-pity. However, that is isolating. When we exhaustingly tread in our self-pity, we feel all alone. We feel that no one in the world can possibly understand what we’re going through. And maybe no one can understand your unique experience. But our emotions, our regrets, our shame, our guilt…these are universal experiences. Most of us have experienced these at some point.

In my office, there is a phenomenon I witness repeatedly. Clients walk in and tell me their story which is usually filled with distress, and their experiences make a great deal of sense when you look at the entire picture. But what I also see are these same clients beating themselves up harshly for not just “being better” on their own. This beating down of themselves sinks them ever more firmly in their despair. Yet, would we do that to ourselves if we broke our legs and didn’t spontaneously “just get better”? Of course not.

Let’s go back to the example of little Johnny up above. Again, let’s say that little Johnny comes in looking a little tearful.

You: “What’s wrong, Johnny?”
Johnny: (looking down) “I…I failed my math quiz.”
You: “You look upset about that.”
Johnny: “Yeah, I thought I studied enough but I guess I’m too dumb.”
You: “You’ve passed your math quizzes all year. What do you think happened with this one?”
Johnny: “Well, I’ve been having trouble with fractions and maybe I should have asked for help instead of playing video games last night.”

It can be seen in this example that compassion is not about telling Johnny that it is okay to fail the quiz or to have not studied enough. It is not about boosting his ego or making blanket statements about how everything will be okay. Compassion is shown here by acknowledging Johnny’s experience of failing, allowing him to feel his negative emotions, and giving him room to be human and make mistakes. In doing so, Johnny does not feel too beaten down to reflect on what went wrong and what he can do moving forward.

We are all human. We will all make mistakes – sometimes catastrophic mistakes. We will all suffer at some point. We’re allowed to feel what we feel. Feel it. Acknowledge it.

Be kind to yourself.

Because when we stop holding ourselves back by being self-critical, then we can begin to move forward.