Don't beat the horse

Imagine two riders.  One beats his horse in frustration.  The other, similarly irritated that the horse is refusing to move, speaks consolingly to the creature and calmly dismounts to find out what the problem is.  There's no question which rider will enjoy the ride more, not to mention which one is more likely to make it to the destination.

This article is part of a series.  You may wish to read the introductory article first.

On our trail ride of life, we all face frustrations.  Some are external obstacles that we may or may not be able to foresee, and others are frustrations with our own limitations and failings.

A previous article discusses how to view reversals and other conflicts we face in life.  Another article in this series discusses how we can stack the odds in our future selves' favor, thus preventing some of the frustrations we might have otherwise.  But despite our best efforts, we'll have off days.  The way we handle them will make a lot of difference in enjoying our trail ride of life.

There are no bad horses: be compassionate with your self

"There are no bad horses," writes Tamsin Bunn, South African horse trainer.I love this quote from her about page: "I wasn’t teaching the horses nearly as much as they were teaching me. They showed me that in order to be a decent trainer to them I had to become a better person, reaching within myself to find those parts of me they trusted, related to and respected."  Yes, we can all learn from horses.  "If your horse is acting out, there is always a reason why: he could be bored, confused, fearful, tired, or in pain.... When we practice mindfulness and start to see ourselves and others through this lens of compassion, our perceptions change."

Bunn already made the connection I was going to make.  Her experience with horses has taught her a valuable lesson about being human.  

This article will examine two things that your present self, the rider, can do to reduce frustrations and stay on course for a more enjoyable and successful ride: self-compassion, and counteracting mistaken beliefs.


Tamsin Bunn probably hasn't spent hours, like I have, poring over the scientific literature on self-compassion, but the evidence indicates she's on the right (horse) track. 

Kristin Neff is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research.  For the past 20 years, she has been one of the most authoritative voices on the subject of self-compassion.  Her words capture the essence of the many selves concept:

Recognition of common humanity also reframes what it means to be a self. When we condemn ourselves for our inadequacies, we are assuming that there is in fact a separate, clearly bounded entity called “me” that can be pinpointed and blamed for failing. But is this really true? We always exist in a present moment context, and the range of our behavioral responses is informed by our individual history.Neff, K., & Germer, C.K. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-being.

Just as a rider needs to be aware of the reasons why a horse might not cooperate, Neff points out that we need to acknowledge there are reasons for being frustrated with ourselves.  "We are the expression of millions of prior circumstances that have all come together to shape us in the present moment. Our economic and social background, our past associations and relationships, our family history, our genetics have all had a profound role in creating the person we are today." 

In other words, we are all human.  And it's this recognition of our common humanity that makes self-compassion so powerful.

On her website, Neff points out,

People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden.

But isn't self-compassion just self-pity?  Neff has encountered many such objections during the last two decades.  I'll briefly summarize her responses:

  • Isn't self-compassion weak?  No. "Psychologists are discovering that self-compassion is a powerful source of coping and resilience."
  • Is self-compassion lazy?  On the contrary, those who are self-compassionate are just as motivated, but for the right reasons: love rather than fear.  This means they have less anxiety, resulting in less self-handicapping behavior, such as procrastination.
  • Isn't it self-indulgent?  No, self-compassion focuses on alleviating suffering.  Self-indulgence, on the other hand, is a lack of regard for one's long-term well-being.
  • Is self-compassion selfish? Neff cites several studies indicating compassion for oneself leads to more, not less, connection to others. Self-compassion focuses on the common humanity of the self, while self-pity focuses solely on the self.  This is an important difference.

In my article on self-esteem, I chose Nathaniel Branden, "the father of the Self-Esteem movement," as my central authority.  After carefully considering the common view of scientific authors on the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion, I now believe that Branden's Six Pillars method is actually a combination of both self-compassion and self-esteem.The authors in the literature I examined for this article all seem to believe that self-esteem is often based on comparisons to others, and therefore is an unreliable, even possibly deceptive, measure of self-worth.  However, Branden's method is based solidly on reality.  I still believe that his method has great value, but it may not be the best description of self-esteem in the sense that many scholars interpret it.

A well-known Stanford study on the link between compassion and happiness focused on three primary criteria: mindfulness, affect, and emotion regulation.Jazaieri, H., McGonigal, K., Jinpa, T., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Golden, P. R. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of compassion cultivation training: Effects on mindfulness, affect, and emotion regulation. Motivation and Emotion, 38, 23-35. doi: 10.1007/s11031-013-9368-z  Interestingly, there's a rough correspondence between these three areas and the first three pillars of Branden's method:

  1. Mindfulness, "being 'experientially open' to the reality of the present moment, allowing whatever thoughts, emotions, and sensations enter awareness without judgment, avoidance, or repression," corresponds with Branden's Practice of Living Consciously.
  2. Affect includes moods and emotions.  Branden's second pillar includes "giving oneself permission to think one’s thoughts, experience one’s emotions, and look at one’s actions without necessarily liking, endorsing, or condoning them."
  3. According to the study, "Emotion regulation refers to the process of influencing which, when and how both positive and negative emotions are experienced and expressed."  Branden's third pillar, The Practice of Self Responsibility, focuses on taking charge of what we can control.

According to the study authors, compassion cultivation training (CCT) "resulted in increased mindfulness and happiness, as well as decreased worry and emotional suppression."  These are strong reasons for learning to practice self-compassion, and compassion in general.Interestingly, CCT resulted in decreased expressive suppression and increased cognitive reappraisal, two strategies that are closely connected with emotional intelligence, according to Megías-Robles A, Gutiérrez-Cobo MJ, Gómez-Leal R, Cabello R, Gross JJ, Fernández-Berrocal P (2019) Emotionally intelligent people reappraise rather than suppress their emotions. PLoS ONE 14(8): e0220688.

Don't let mistaken beliefs ruin the ride

Let's take a brief pause from self-compassion to talk about the role of beliefs in the well-being of your present self.  Sometimes we believe things that just aren't true, without realizing it.  For example:

Life should be easy.

Few of us would make such a bold statement, but isn't it true that we often get frustrated by unexpected challenges?  Unfortunately, when our present self feels this way, we often look around and see others who aren't currently in the same boat.  Our situation can seem abnormal or unfair. 

Self-compassion involves realizing that the way we feel is actually common.  In fact, there are likely many others in the world who are going through something similar at the very same time.  Neff calls our tendency to think of our circumstances as unique, "the personal fable."

Challenges are good.  Unexpected challenges can be frustrating, but if we remember that they are part of the ride, we can learn to take them in stride.

Things should always go right.

A 2007 multi-part study by Tate and colleagues examined the relationship between self-compassion and adverse life events.Leary, M., Tate, E.B., Adams, C.E., Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92 5, 887-904.  They considered common reactions:

  • "These things always happen to me."
  • "My life is more screwed up than other people's."
  • "I’m a loser."

People high in self-compassion were unlikely to have these thoughts, but more likely to think, "Everyone has a bad day now and then."

Besides cutting yourself some slack, try asking yourself, "Why do I think I shouldn’t be having the problems that I'm having?" 

I can't think about my weaknesses without feeling discouraged.

In one of the Tate studies, participants were asked to think about a negative situation in their life that "involved failure, humiliation, or rejection."  By inducing self-compassion as part of the study process, participants were able to acknowledge their mistakes without feeling bad about them. 

The authors conclude, "Apparently, self-compassion does not undermine people’s willingness to accept responsibility for their actions and, in fact, may promote it."

I should have known better.

Ask yourself, why?  If you had known better, you wouldn't have made the mistake you made.  You are judging the decision from your current perspective, knowing what you know now, and expecting your past self to have the same knowledge is unreasonable. 

Yes, you may have "known better," but there were other factors that led to your making the decision you made.  Try to figure out what those factors were so you can set yourself up for success next time.

Also, recognize that learning takes different forms.  Sometimes we just have to learn things the hard way.  Learn, and move on.

Practice positive self-talk

Some of us talk to ourselves out loud, but we all do it silently.  Self-talk is a habit that can be modified like any other habit.  The next article will discuss another powerful way we can deal compassionately with ourselves.  In the meantime, be good to the horse.


  • Self-compassion has many benefits:
    • It makes us more resilient.
    • It helps us stay motivated.
    • It helps us do what's best for us.
    • It helps us connect better with others.
  • Recognizing common mistaken beliefs can help:
    • We can learn to accept unexpected challenges.
    • We can learn to react better when things go wrong.
    • We can think about our weaknesses without getting discouraged.
    • We can be more patient with ourselves.

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self
  6. The Rider - Your Present Self

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