Should you be kind to yourself or be strict and self-disciplined?

The internet is splattered with two life philosophies.

Philosophy 1

This philosophy says ‘Discipline equals freedom.’ So toughen up your mind, show up every day, and be relentless. Don’t allow your feelings to mess with your actions. You don’t need motivation, you need discipline. So be consistent, no matter what.

Philosophy 2

This philosophy says, “Be kind to yourself.” Prioritize self-care. Don’t be overly self-critical. Listen to what your gut says, and when you are tired or exhausted, take a break – don’t push or be too hard on yourself.

Now, both these philosophies make so much sense. But they also seem to be diametrically opposite! So which principle should guide our actions?

To illustrate, let us take a realistic example:

If my body is tired from working out in the gym for the past few days, I may feel like taking a break. So should I show self-compassion and take a break? Or should I be disciplined and show up in the gym even when I don’t feel like it?

If I take a break, will I be tempted to do it again in the future and ultimately fail in my goal of building the workout habit? Or if I do show up in the gym, will I be so tired and burnt out that I quit in frustration?

What should I do? Where is the boundary between discipline and self-compassion?

To answer this, let us understand what these two philosophies are trying to accomplish. It turns out that both of them are trying to achieve the same thing – your long-term success and well-being.

In that case, why don’t we start with that goal and work backward?

The question then becomes – what approach will achieve our best long-term well-being and happiness? And to help you get clarity, I suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

1. What would you advise a friend or loved one in the same situation?

Often, this question is enough to give you instant clarity. When it comes to advising a loved one, we are likely to be much more objective. And if something is right for them, then isn’t that what we should also do?

2. How would either decision make you feel a few days/ weeks later when the emotions have subsided?

This question is a bit hard to answer but you can often look into your past experiences and extrapolate. E.g., in the past, when you skipped the gym on the days you felt sore, did you regret it a few days later? And if you did, then could this desire to take a break be a transient thing?

3. Has the desire to take it easy (or take a break) been persisting for a few days or has it just arisen?

This question is fairly self-explanatory. If a feeling has just arisen, it is rarely safe to listen to it – these feelings just come and go. E.g., in this gym example, if your body has been asking for a break for many days, then maybe you need to show self-compassion and give yourself a break. Otherwise, if you take a break every time you feel a bit sore, you will probably never build the habit.

There are two other points to keep in mind:

A. Self-compassion vs self-indulgence

Even when we choose self-compassion, where does self-compassion stop and self-indulgence begin? E.g., if you feel like having an ice cream after a difficult day at work, you could ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is having an ice cream the best thing for you or should you explore healthier options? Might it be smarter to instead talk to a good friend, watch a movie, or just take a nature walk?
  2. If you do choose to have ice cream, would half a scoop do? Or should you finish a whole tub? Often, the former should be enough. So even if you take it easy, never forget moderation.

B. Self-compassion in taking action vs. judging yourself

Make a distinction between self-compassion when we have to do something hard vs. when we are judging ourselves.

We are often quick to judge ourselves harshly, especially if we have done something we are not proud of. And we should not rationalize inappropriate actions. But remember, any single action of ours is not a complete reflection of who we are. Also, we keep evolving as human beings and our personalities, behavior traits keep changing – we are not set in stone.

So my general guideline is to err on the side of being strict when deciding to take some action (e.g., going to the gym) but err on the side of self-compassion when judging yourself (e.g., if you fumbled during a speech, don’t tell yourself that you are useless – you just fumbled).

Even with these guidelines, there will be some inherent conflict between these two philosophies and often, there is no universal right answer. But don’t despair – that is what makes unique individuals.

My personal bias is strongly in favor of philosophy 1 when it comes to action and philosophy 2 when it comes to judging myself. But like everyone else, I am hugely imperfect and don’t always do things right.

So don’t worry if you don’t take an action that later feels wrong – you can always correct it next time.


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