A few years ago, my daughter came home looking pale. She’d gotten a “C” on her 6th grade French quiz and was distraught. She was afraid of how I would react.
“It’s not a good grade, but this was your first French test,” I told her. “You should ask the teacher if you can retake it after you study some more.” I gave her a hug and felt her exhale, just a little.
She studied, retook the test and did much better. I was proud of her. But what struck me most was my own reaction: I’d been kind and compassionate in a way I rarely was toward myself. I wasn’t good at practicing self-compassion. My expertise was grit — in fact, I’m one of the “grittiest” people I know.
Success-wise, grit is supposed to be a good thing. It helps us persevere to reach our goals. For me, grit came at an early age, and it almost killed me.
When I was 13, my parents and I escaped persecution as Jews in the former Soviet Union and came to the United States as refugees in 1989. My parents left everything behind to give me the opportunity to build a life in America. We initially lived in the projects outside Detroit, and we were on food stamps and welfare for a time until my parents found jobs — my father as a scientist and my mother as a piano teacher.
I remember being hungry, but not complaining to my parents about it because they were so stressed. I took on a “me-against-the-world” mentality, setting my sights on becoming incredibly successful, proving to my parents and to myself that our struggles had been worth it.
Though I started out in remedial reading classes because my English was so poor, I worked hard enough to graduate third in my high school class, then chose a major at Wesleyan University that required a 10-page paper every week. I believed that anything worthwhile lay on the other side of massive struggle.
Grit was one of the first qualities I noticed about Americans — and, as I saw it, it was the key to building a great life in my adopted country. As an immigrant and, eventually, an entrepreneur, I saw grit as my ally as it drove me to graduate from college with high honors; land a job at a top consulting firm; become a managing director at a venture capital firm, and launch a business with my husband. I also published a book and had a baby — all before I turned 30.
Yet none of it felt sufficient to honor my parents’ gift of life in America. I didn’t feel as if I were enough — successful enough, creative enough, good enough as a mom. I treated mistakes as mortal sins, as evidence that something was wrong with me.
My response to these feelings of inadequacy was to work harder, sleep less and deprive myself of emotional and physical nourishment. I had no time for those luxuries. Even when I became CEO of a start-up — ironically, a learning and technology platform called Happier that helps people practice habits to improve their emotional health — I found myself going through the motions, perpetually on the brink of either collapsing or exploding.
By age 39, I lived in a state of constant dread. I ran myself ragged and berated myself for being so pathetic. More than once I found myself in my car outside my office in the early hours of the morning, so fatigued I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I would black out from exhaustion.
For the first time in my life, grit was failing me. I was on the brink of losing everything — my company, my family, my sanity, my health.
As my company was running out of money, I continued to make terrible decisions that cost us even more. I had tried my best to shield my daughter from my stress, but I would yell at her at the drop of a hat — then I’d cry uncontrollably from the guilt. Feeling like a terrible mom was incredibly painful. My husband had been my rock for 15 years, but after I unleashed endless bouts of panic and fear on him, he pulled back, and for a time our marriage was reduced to transactional exchanges about our daughter.
My mind raced, and I couldn’t sleep. I ate too much or too little, drank too much wine and began to avoid all interactions with friends and most of my team at work.
An investor in my company saw what was happening and told me he wouldn’t work with me anymore unless I visited his life coach. I thought how American it sounded to talk to a stranger about my problems. Grudgingly, I went.
The life coach told me something I had never thought of before: I couldn’t fix parts of my life without helping myself first. I realized I needed to put things on hold to make my life right again. I started reading about self-compassion. If I could be kinder to myself, I could be kinder to my family. I decided to give it a try. My relationship with my daughter improved. My husband and I slowly built our marriage back with tiny acts of intentional kindness.
If you’re rolling your eyes, I get it; I used to find the idea that I should treat myself with kindness absurd and self-indulgent. If I treated myself kindly when I made a mistake, how would I get better?
But that year I put things on hold, 2015, I learned that self-compassion has nothing to do with slacking off. It actually increased my motivation by giving me more confidence and perspective. When I took care of myself and wasn’t relentlessly running to achieve, I was able to make more thoughtful, self-assured and better decisions.
Research at the University of California at Berkeley found that students who adopted a mind-set of self-compassion after doing poorly on a difficult exam were more motivated to study and retake the test than those who didn’t.
I used to assume that self-compassion was a form of fake positive thinking — like pretending I was doing great when I wasn’t. In fact, self-compassion allowed me to see myself more realistically because my judgment wasn’t clouded by self-recrimination.
According to Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on the subject, there are three main components to practicing self-compassion: Showing self-kindness — talking to yourself the way you would to a good friend; reminding yourself that everyone fails from time to time; and mindfully observing any negative feelings you’re experiencing rather than suppressing them.
You probably already do these things when a loved one shares a mistake they’ve made. I instinctively did it for my daughter, even if I couldn’t do it for myself.
Self-compassion isn’t a reward for hard work but a crucial component of resilience. It means pausing to accept credit and savoring moments of beauty and humanity. It has enabled me to keep working toward my goals.
On days when I find it difficult to be kind to myself — and there are still many — I think about being a role model for my daughter, and that usually helps me along. Because as much as I used to worship grit and dismiss self-compassion, I’ve discovered that they are inextricably intertwined. Combining the two has enabled me to achieve things that seemed impossible at my lowest point, including repositioning my company, writing a book and taking up abstract painting.
Best of all, my life feels more sustainable. I have more energy for my daughter, my marriage and for activities that just plain make me happy. I’m still ambitious and driven. I still focus on what I need to accomplish, and I think about things I should have done better. But I no longer look past my achievements, big and small. I enjoy them, and I realize that’s the real American Dream.
Nataly Kogan is the author of the upcoming book “Happier Now: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Embrace Everyday Moments,” which will be available May 1, and the founder of Happier, a learning and technology platform.