The Key to Surviving the Holidays – Self-Compassion

John Schinnerer, Ph.D. Positive Psychologist

John Schinnerer, Ph.D. Positive Psychologist

As we transition through the holiday season, it makes good sense to talk about survival tools. How do we survive the coming onslaught of family and friends and the accompanying mistakes, failings, and misunderstandings that will inevitably follow during and after the holidays?

Self-Esteem Isn’t the Answer

Ten years ago, the answer might have been to boost everyone’s self-esteem before they come together. For decades, we have been obsessed with self-esteem. For so long, we thought if we could just make people feel good about themselves, it would solve family problems, societal problems and psychological problems. We’ve created programs to instill high self-esteem in our children, our students and our families.


Self-Esteem Alone Can Be Dangerous

Self-esteem involves how one feels about him- or herself. There are two types of self-esteem – state and trait. State self-esteem is how positively one evaluates himself in the moment. Trait self-esteem has to do with how positively one sees himself overall.
Recent research has shown that increasing self-esteem is not as effective as once thought. Many people with high self-esteem feel so good about themselves that they feel comfortable abusing and taking advantage of other people (e.g., higher degrees of narcissism). At some point, individuals with high self-esteem seem to be able to rationalize destructive behaviors towards others using the idea that they are superior. Obviously, this was not an intended outcome of self-esteem programs.
So how do we get people to feel good about themselves without adding to their sense of superiority?

Self-Compassion – An Inner Critic with Loving Kindness

While self-esteem had to do with how one feels about himself, self-compassion involves how one treats himself when things go badly. The goal is to treat oneself with the same type of kindness and compassion that most people extend to loved ones when they fail. When other people fall short of a goal or err, most people will react with kindness and compassion. On the other hand, studies show that most people are harsh with themselves when they screw up. Most people are self-punitive, disparaging and hypercritical of their own shortcomings and mistakes. Unfortunately, this degrades the quality of our emotional lives. It upsets the emotional apple cart, as it were.
Even people with high self-esteem are prone to this sort of self-punishing internal beat down. We are truly our own worst critics.

Self-Compassion Leads to Greater Resiliency

People with self-compassion are more resilient. They roll with the punches. Self-compassionate people bounce back more quickly from setbacks because they treat themselves more kindly when they fail or make a mistake.
Can We Have Too Much Self-Compassion?

This all sounds good so far. What’s the catch? Is it possible to be overly self-compassionate to the point where one is self-indulgent? Is it possible, or even probable, that a compassionate person might take no responsibility for their mistakes?
Research at Duke University suggests that is not the case. Self-compassionate people take responsibility for failures and own up to mistakes. They do feel badly when things go awry. According to Mark Leary at Duke, self-compassionate people simply lack that extra layer of self-flagellation and internal criticism. In other words, their internal critic has learned to speak less often and more kindly.

How To Build More Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff, a researcher at University of Texas (and fellow Berkeley grad), has the following suggestions for ways to foster more self-compassion… “Self-Kindness – ‘What would a caring friend say to you in this situation?’ ‘What is a kind and constructive way to think about how I can rectify this mistake or do better next time?’ Try putting your hand over your heart or gently stroking your arm when feeling a lot of pain as a gesture of kindness and compassion.
Self-judgment – ‘Who ever said human beings are supposed to be perfect?’ ‘Would a caring mother say this to her child if she wanted the child to grow and develop?’ ‘How will I learn if it’s not okay to make mistakes?’
Common Humanity – Think about all the other people who have made similar mistakes, gone through similar situations, and so on. ‘This is the human condition – all humans are vulnerable, flawed, make mistakes, have things happen that are difficult and painful’ ‘How does this situation give me more insight into and compassion for the human experience?’
Isolation – ‘I am not the only one going through such difficult times, all people experience things like this at some point in their lives.’ ‘Although I take full responsibilities for my mistakes and failings, I also recognize and understand that my actions and behaviors are connected to other people’s actions and behaviors – nothing happens in a vacuum.’

Mindfulness – Take several deep slow breaths and try to be with your pain exactly as it is. Let yourself feel the pain without suppressing, resisting, or avoiding it. Take a moment to stop and say to yourself, this is really hard right now. Let yourself be moved and touched by your own pain. Try to see the situation clearly with calm, clarity and a balanced perspective. ‘I fully accept this moment and these emotions as they are.’”

So as you transition through the holidays and family tensions rise, remember to be more self-compassionate. If you make a mistake, fall short of a goal, or fail to act a certain way, respond with loving kindness towards yourself, just as you would to a small child. You’ll be glad you did.

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

About the Author

Dr. John Schinnerer is in private practice helping individuals learn happiness by mitigating destructive emotions and fostering constructive emotions. His practice is located in the Danville-San Ramon Medical Center at 913 San Ramon Valley Blvd., #280, Danville, California 94526. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. Dr. Schinnerer has been an executive and psychologist for over 10 years. Dr. John Schinnerer is President and Founder of Guide To Self, a company that coaches clients to their potential using the latest in positive psychology, mindfulness and attentional control. Dr. John Schinnerer hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Schinnerer is President of Infinet Assessment a psychological testing company to help firms select the best applicants. Dr. Schinnerer’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to moral development, to sports psychology. Dr. Schinnerer wrote the award-winning, Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,” which is available at, and




Victor Sinclair. VP of VSC International, Founder of the Positive Imperative and the Positive Music Imperative movements/concept and community, has a wide background in teaching, broadcasting, the music industry and business and most recently served as a founder and Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Canada (AmCham Canada). He has also dedicated more than 30 years of his life to volunteerism and not for profits including Big Brothers, Memorial Boys and Girls Clubs, Minor Leagues Sports and as a President and board member of several not-for-profit boards. Interests include family, biking, tennis, reading, music and PI/PMI of course.

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