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Feeling Dissertation Shame? Try Self-Compassion Instead | Issue 287

Summary: Feeling shame over your lack of progress toward your doctoral degree? Self-compassion will motivate you more than self-criticism. Learn how.

Estimated read time: 5 minutes that offers the peace and focus you need for positive productivity.


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor

When you miss another dissertation deadline, what's your first impulse? When you can't figure out a theoretical model or a coding error or a statistical result, how do you react? When your advisor sends you negative feedback, how does it hit you? 

Do you start beating yourself up—or do you give yourself a little kindness? 

Many otherwise intelligent people shy away from self-compassion for fear that it will breed laziness and complacency. Are you one of them?  | Tweet this

Sadly, for many these challenges become setbacks that trigger a sense of shame. Hope flies out the window—and in rushes a desire to hide under the blankets or otherwise avoid anything dissertation-related. The inner critics raise their ugly voices—berating oneself for incompetence, laziness, and general unworthiness. Any behavior that will drown them out beckons, regardless of its harm to one's long-term best interests. 

If you've experienced this pattern, you know how the resulting downward spiral only sets you further back. 

Fortunately, there is an antidote to self-criticism—self-compassion. 

However, self-compassion does not always come easily. Let's explore common entrenched habits and myths holding many back from needed self-nurturing. 


What we get wrong about self-compassion

We've been socialized to value productivity so much that we feel obliged to power through the roughest of seas heedless of our inner needs. 

But the pioneering research of Kristin Neff, Ph.D., questions those cultural norms. Studies by Neff and others clearly demonstrate the critical role of self-compassion for flourishing, debunking several self-compassion myths

Let's destroy the two self-compassion myths most prevalent among doctoral students from my experience coaching hundreds of ABDs. 

Myth #1: Self-compassion is self-pity. 

More than one ABD client has expressed to me the concern that any self-kindness while struggling would be tantamount to "giving myself a pass for being lazy." They fear they would be catering to their worst impulses and become mired in self-pity. 

It's time to stop hanging onto the timeworn, discredited idea that punishment or shame enhances productivity. 

Self-pity bears little resemblance to self-compassion. Self-pity arises when you focus exclusively on your own problems, dramatizing your suffering as "special." But setbacks and mistakes don't make you special—they make you human. Self-compassion involves admitting you are a flawed human being just like everyone else, and you feel more empathy for others. Also, being honest with yourself allows you to take responsibility, Neff explains. 

Consider how you would treat someone else who was suffering: You'd offer acceptance and kindness rather than shame or pity, right? Now turn that compassion toward yourself when needed. 

The dissertation journey inevitably involves learning challenges, i.e., getting a proposal accepted, collecting, or analyzing data, writing each chapter, etc. 

With self-compassion, the stigma attached to struggling will morph into opportunities for personal and professional growth . 

So give yourself some breathing room by acknowledging that the path is inherently difficult and that you are less than perfect. 

Myth #2: Self-compassion is self-indulgence

When you find yourself struggling with your dissertation, do you do any of these? 

  • Sleep in

  • Seek retail therapy

  • Binge on food or media

  • Abuse alcohol or other substances

Occasional treats don't hurt, but overindulging risks endangering your academic future and well-being. 

How can you distinguish between self-indulgence and self-compassion? 

If it provides only short-term mood repair, classify it as self-indulgence. These temporary diversions allow you to avoid the shame, fear, or discomfort you have come to associate with your dissertation. But they don't resolve anything. 

Self-compassion, however, permits you to re-engage with your work faster. 


How to Practice Self-Compassion

Dr. Neff outlines a three-step process to shift from self-downing to self-compassion: 

1. Mindfulness: Accept your feelings about the situation. 

Lean into your suffering. Name it with self-talk, e.g., "This is really hard" or "I'm struggling." 

2. Common Humanity: Remember suffering is a part of life.


Tap into your ties to the rest of humanity. You might tell yourself, "It is normal to feel this way" or "Many people are going through similar challenges." 

3. Self-Kindness: Offer yourself kindness.

Talk to yourself as kindly as you would to a friend: "May I be kind to myself in this moment." "I'm here for you." Try using a term of endearment or placing your hand over your heart. (I like to do a butterfly hug.) Soak in the warmth. 

"Let go and notice how your body feels," recommends Neff. "Let any sensations be just as they are in the moment." 


Self-compassion boosts mood and productivity.

The practice of self-compassion is both simple yet profound. You may be pleasantly surprised at the uplift in your outlook and your productivity. These consequences are supported by an overview of research that concludes self-compassion boosts motivation, happiness, feelings of self-worth, and resilience while reducing psychological distress. 

If you are ready to ditch endless bouts of self-recrimination and procrastination in favor of developing your best self, start by cultivating self-compassion. The more often you practice it, the sooner it becomes your default mode for facing suffering. For more ways to practice and additional insights, see the resources below. 

My positive psychology dissertation coaching colleagues and I can attest to the value of self-compassion for clients of all kinds, especially dissertation clients. As one ABD client shared with me, "I didn't know I was allowed to enjoy this process." Here's how another doctoral student summarized his most valuable insight from coaching: 

"I've learned that self-compassion is more motivating than self-criticism." -K. M. | Tweet this 

Finishing your dissertation may involve more struggle, but you can stop adding to your pain through mental self-flagellation. Start giving yourself permission to be kind to the one doing all the work—namely you. 


Note: Would you like to feel and do your best more often? Click here for a free consultation with one of our positive psychology dissertation coaches-compassionate and effective partners for your journey.

Memorable Self-Compassion Quotations


"One of the best guides to how to be self-loving is to give ourselves the love we are often dreaming about receiving from others." ~ bell hooks | Tweet this 

"Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." ~ Pema Chodron

"Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid." ~ Harriet Lerner

"Lighten up on yourself. No one is perfect. Gently accept your humanness." ~ Deborah Day

"Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn't worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens." ~ Louise Hay

Self-Compassion Resources Kristin Neff, Ph.D. A plethora of resources, including exercises, meditations, video and audio courses, and links to her various books. Take her self-compassion quiz here

The RAIN of Self-Compassion Meditation with Tara Brach, Ph.D. (YouTube) Overcome the trance of unworthiness with the author of Radical Compassion

Self-Compassion: An Antidote to Shame by Chris Germer. (YouTube) Don't let shame ruin your life—learn to recognize it and recover from it with self-compassion. 

The Self-Compassion Deck. Find more ways to be kind to yourself with card deck with 50 mindfulness based practices by Christopher Willard. 

Lovingkindness Meditation with Sharon Salzberg on Insight Timer. Start rewiring your brain for more compassion for yourself and others through this traditional Buddhist meditation.

Above photo is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC



An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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