Kindness matters: Helping people to achieve their goals by overcoming the barriers to being self-compassionate

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Psychology


Goals are important - they influence how we think and behave, and even express who we are (e.g., someone who has the goal to go jogging, may refer to themselves as 'a runner'). Unfortunately, although people often have the best intentions they still struggle to achieve their goals (hence the popularity of phrases like 'the road to hell is paved with good intentions'). Our research explores why people struggle and identifies ways to help.

Most important goals (e.g., regularly exercising, completing work on time, being a better parent) require continued efforts over a lengthy period of time. Therefore, people inevitably encounter lapses and setbacks (e.g., they have a hard day and don't go running as planned). Common reactions to such lapses include self-criticism and self-blame (e.g., this is all my fault), which can make people feel bad and, in turn, lead them to delay or abandon their goals (e.g., running isn't for me).

Our research investigates the idea that changing how people respond to these situations may help them to achieve their goals. Specifically, we propose that helping people to respond self-compassionately; which means responding in a kind, non-judgmental, and accepting way towards themselves in these situations (e.g., someone might tell themselves that everyone has a hard day from time to time) can help people to bounce back from these lapses. Unfortunately, evidence also indicates that responding with self-compassion can be challenging for some people.

However, currently there is no coherent explanation for why this is that case, of for understanding who is likely to struggle and why. The proposed research therefore introduces a new framework for understanding the challenges people have for being self-compassionate and uses this to propose some new ways to help people to respond self-compassionately if they experience a lapse while striving for their goals. We will then go on to test the effectiveness of these strategies in three different applied settings in partnership with local and national organizations.

Our first set of studies will investigate and compare the effects of three strategies designed to promote self-compassionate responses to lapses in goal pursuit: (i) mental contrasting (thinking about positive outcomes of being self-compassionate followed by obstacles that stand in the way of doing so), (ii) stocktaking (thinking about times in the past when one was self-compassionate), and (iii) forming implementation intentions (if-then plans that specify how to respond with self-compassion after difficulty). The strategies will be evaluated in the context of three broad types of goals: health behaviours, work/academic, and relationships. We will also test who is likely to struggle to respond to goal lapses in a self-compassionate way, why this is, and if the strategies that we develop are effective for these individuals as well.

Our main set of studies will apply the insights from the first set of studies to test whether the tools for helping people to be self-compassionate are effective in key contexts. Specifically, we will work with a gym, a publisher, and a parenting organisation to investigate the impact of the three strategies (alone or in combination) in helping people to respond compassionately to a lapse in the pursuit of exercise goals, work deadlines, and parenting.

Taken together, the proposed research will help to understand why people struggle to be self-compassionate (proposing a framework that can be used in the future) and develop and test new ways to help people to think about how they can respond in a more compassionate, rather than a critical way, when facing lapses or setbacks. In addition to making a contribution to theory, the proposed research also has the potential to have important societal benefits by promoting mental health and increasing productivity.

Planned Impact

The questions of why people struggle to be self-compassionate and whether strategies that address these challenges can help people to achieve their goals have scientific and societal significance. For example, developing strategies to help people to respond compassionately to lapses in their pursuit of goals (e.g., missing a scheduled gym class or deadline at work) has the potential to help people to be more successful across a broad range of goals, which in turn can be beneficial for their mental health and productivity. As such, the proposed research will likely benefit a number of specific groups (e.g., parents, people who attend gyms, organisations and those who work within them), as well as members of the general public. Below we detail examples of these potential benefits.

The proposed research will develop tools that can be used to help people to achieve their exercise goals (e.g., regular attendance at the gym). Therefore, our research has the potential to benefit anyone who struggles to become more physically active, as well as the gyms that provide support for some of these individuals. To this end, the proposed research has the potential to help reduce the negative health and financial consequences of unused gym memberships. This impact will be achieved through our partnership with the Sweat! Union group of gyms, via the workshops and training manuals that we will develop for gym users and staff, as well as through other public engagement platforms and activities such as public talks, social media, and lay reports.

By investigating how people respond to procrastination at work and developing strategies for modifying these responses to promote productivity, the proposed research is also likely to benefit organisations and those who work within them (including students and children in educational contexts). Specifically, the proposed research will provide insights and tools that have the potential to reduce losses in productivity due to missed deadlines and increase well-being by helping people to respond more self-compassionately to lapses in their pursuit of work and educational goals.

Finally, we expect that the proposed research will benefit parents, as feelings of guilt and shame about not meeting parenting goals are commonplace. The tools that we will develop to help parents to respond with self-compassion rather than self-criticism when they experience challenging situations could not only help parents to feel more confident and improve their relationships with their children, but is also likely to confer important social and emotional benefits to their children (e.g., promote achievement at school, adjustment and so on). We will work with our partner Parenting Sheffield to begin to realise these benefits and deliver this impact via workshops and educational materials for parents.

In addition to the applied benefits of the proposed research, providing a theoretical framework for understanding why some people struggle to be self-compassionate and answering the question of how to help such people to make changes to their behaviour is central to a number of academic disciplines (e.g., sociology, political science, economics). The proposed research will generate new knowledge and expand our understanding of how to promote behaviour change, reduce procrastination, and facilitate goal achievement. Our innovative approach of adapting strategies from behaviour change science, to promote self-compassionate responses to lapses to goal pursuit will provide novel tools for those interested in behaviour change. The impact of our contributions to understanding of self-compassion (e.g., when and why people struggle to be self-compassionate and how to overcome these challenges) and the individual differences that may hinder self-compassionate responding to lapses will be achieved by presentations at national and international conferences, as well as via publication of peer-reviewed papers.


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