Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

I devoted my twenties and most of my thirties to climbing the ranks of academia. By age 35, I had met my goal of a tenure-track professorship at a top research university on the east coast.

How did I do it? I was passionate, dedicated, all that. But what few saw was that my success depended heavily on the unrelenting voice of my inner self-critic.

I recall giving a presentation at Princeton on ancient meditative practices and modern-day brain science. It went well. But at the end, a gray-bearded scholar stood up, a condescending frown on his face. He asked me if I’d looked closely at the Latin of the medieval text I’d been referencing, because, in the original Latin, it seems to indicate that [blah blah blah… I won’t bore you, but he went on to severely challenge my work because I’d relied on an English translation.]

My inner critic sprang into action. “Why didn’t you look at the original Latin text? Because you don’t know Latin! You’re so lazy, such a dabbler, unworthy of real scholarly respect. Sweetheart, if you wanna do this, you better not just learn neuroscience; you better get your butt in gear and teach yourself Latin, too.” And so, goaded by the whip of this inner oppressor, I added to my already impossibly full plate of teaching, committees, mentoring, research: LEARN LATIN. NOW.

Well, predictably, I burned out. At age 36, I walked away from my dream job at Boston University. Of course, there were multiple factors that went into this decision. But now that I know about the devastating effects of constant inner criticism, and the amazing benefits of a self-compassionate approach, I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d managed to be kind, understanding, empathic, and graceful with myself. Instead of, you know, bludgeoning myself along with the constant message that I wasn’t enough, and probably never would be.

The Inner Critic

Turns out, it wasn’t just me. Research shows many leaders rely heavily on self-criticism to keep focused and motivated.

Now, it’s healthy to have an inner part of ourselves that notices when we’re missing the mark and guides us to change course. Leaders, especially, should have high standards for themselves and an ability to self-correct.

But healthy striving for excellence can sometimes morph into something else.

Maladaptive Perfectionism

Take a look at this list of eight statements. Ask yourself: Which ones apply to you often or always?

For most of my adult life, I’d say almost all those statements applied to me, almost all the time. When healthy striving morphs into chronic self-doubt and self-reproach, researchers call it “maladaptive perfectionism.” And that list of statements you just read? That’s a list of its key symptoms.

Maladaptive perfectionism hurts. It means you suffer regularly with high levels of inner criticism, along with other stuff like anxiety, irritability, self-protectiveness, isolation, burnout, and trouble adapting. It’s a tough way to live with yourself, and it can really strain your relationships, especially if you’re a leader.

So, if many of the statements above apply to you, read on for a (free!) upcoming opportunity to heal and strengthen your relationship with yourself.

The Wisdom of Self-Compassion

It’s taken me years to realize how counterproductive it is to rely on self-criticism for motivation and focus. I can honestly say that learning to be less hard on myself has been one of the most impactful journeys of my life. The kinder I’ve become to myself, the happier and more successful I’ve become in both life and work.

Studies link self-compassion with high resilience in all areas of life. Self-compassionate people are more confident, and less anxious. They are more emotionally resilient, and less prone to burnout. They are high on creative initiative and personal standards, and low on fear of failure. And they are more compassionate and forgiving toward others.

For these reasons and more, self-compassion is foundational in my work with organizational leaders.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.