Neuroscience Positive Psychology

Combining a growth mindset and self-compassion for powerful results

Written by Milisa Burns

In my last two posts here at AWAL, I have written about growth mindset (7 Signs You Need a New Mindset) and self-compassion (A self-compassionate route to deeply meaningful success). Now, I would like to show you how Kristin Neff (author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind) ties these two ideas together, because the combination could be instrumental for you on your journey to becoming an attorney with a life and maintaining that state once you have found it.

In the chapter called “Motivation and Personal Growth”, Kristin Neff describes the results of some powerful research:

Many people are afraid they won’t be ambitious enough if they are compassionate with themselves.  Research suggests otherwise.  In one study, for example, we examine how people reacted when they failed to meet their standards, and also how high their standards were in the first place.  We found that self-compassionate people were just as likely to have high standards for themselves as those who lacked self-compassion, but they were much less likely to be hard on themselves on the occasions when they didn’t meet those standards. We’ve also found that self-compassionate people are more-oriented toward personal growth than those who continually criticize themselves. [emphasis added]  They’re more likely to formulate specific plans for reaching their goals, and for making their lives more balanced.  Self-compassion in no way lowers where you set your sites [sic] in life.  It does however, soften how you react when you don’t do as well as you hoped, which actually helps you achieve your goals in the long run. (p. 168)

So, as I mentioned in my previous post on self-compassion, given this research, we can now choose to let go of the assumption that we have to be hard on ourselves in order to move forward and further our ambitions…whew – that’s a relief, isn’t it? Instead, we can be encouraging ourselves in a growth-oriented way. This is where Kristin Neff ties this self-compassion research to the growth mindset. She explains that those who have a growth mindset have learning goals (intrinsically motivated) and those in a fixed mindset are focused on performance goals (extrinsically motivated). Because those in a growth mindset have intrinsic motivation stemming from the desire to learn and grow, rather than from the desire to escape self-criticism, they are more willing to take learning risks. This is largely because they’re not so afraid of failure. In fact those in a growth mindset can “reinterpret failure as a growth opportunity rather than as a condemnation of self-worth”. Neff continues: “When you can trust that failure will be greeted with understanding rather than judgment, it no longer becomes the boogeyman lurking in the closet. Instead failure can be recognized as the master teacher that it is.” (p. 171)

Two encouraging things you can say to yourself in a growth mindset are:

“Practice is progress”; and

“What is the opportunity in this challenge/setback I am facing?” (I go into more detail on this here.)

So, if you want to become an attorney with a life (you will be feeling intrinsic motivation for this), you may be in for a bit of a journey, with lots to learn along the way. It seems to me that you will get there faster and more enjoyably, even with setbacks, if you bring along both a growth mindset and a good dose of self-compassion.

For convenience, here are some of the suggestions I made for getting started in the previous two posts:

Growth Mindset:


Here’s one action you could take as a result of reading this post. Go on over Kristin Neff’s site and try one of her self-compassion practices. There is one called “self-compassion break” that is only 5 minutes long, for example. (Do also read her short tips for practice piece as well – I know that makes it two actions – consider this is a sub-action).

About the author

Milisa Burns

I practiced law for 6 years, and was an at-home parent, before founding Strategic Evolution Coaching & Consulting, in 2006. Through my “Making Room For You” programs, I boldly and tenderly support professional women as they create success for themselves, on their terms. My clients are very "successful", but inside they may initially be very stressed, full of questions, possibly bored and no longer fulfilled. They are yearning for more. My clients are amazed at how quickly they create peace and contentment while achieving at even higher levels than they previously imagined. I have 3 children and am married to my law school sweetheart.

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