Updated: Sep 15
Give Yourself a Break: The Power of Self-Compassion
When people experience a setback at work whether it's a bad sales quarter, being overlooked for a promotion, or an interpersonal conﬂict with a colleague it's common to respond in one of two ways. Either we become defensive and blame others, or we berate ourselves. Unfortunately, neither response is especially helpful. Dodging responsibility by
getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning.
Self-ﬂagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one's potential, which undermines personal development.
What if instead we were to treat ourselves as we would a friend in a similar situation? More likely than not, we'd be kind, understanding, and encouraging. Directing that type of response internally, toward ourselves, is known as self-compassion, and it's been the focus of a good deal of research in recent years. Psychologists are discovering that selfcompassion is a useful tool for enhancing performance in a variety of settings, from healthy aging to athletics.
For most, (self-compassion is a less familiar concept than self-esteem or self-conﬁdence. Although it's true that people who engage in self-compassion tend to have higher self-esteem, the two concepts are distinct. Self-esteem tends to involve evaluating oneself in comparison with others. Self-compassion, on the other hand, doesn't involve judging the self or others. Instead, it creates a sense of self-worth because it leads people to genuinely care about their own well-being and recovery after a setback.
People with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviors: First, they are kind)
rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes; second, they recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and third, they take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short -they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don't let negative emotions take over.
A Growth Mindset Most organizations and people want to improve--and self-compassion is crucial for that. We tend to associate personal growth with determination, persistence, and hard work, but the process often starts with reﬂection.) One of the key requirements for self-improvement is having a realistic assessment of where we stand -of our strengths and our limitations. Convincing ourselves that we are better than we are leads to complacency, and thinking we're worse than we are leads to defeatism. When people treat themselves with compassion, they are better able to arrive at realistic self-appraisals, which is the foundation for improvement. They are also more motivated to work on their weaknesses rather than think "What's the point?" and to summon the grit required to enhance skills and change bad habits.
Being True to the Self
Self-compassion has benefits for the workplace beyond boosting employees' drive to improve. Over time, it can help people gravitate to roles that better ﬁt their personality and values. Living in accord with one's true self -what psychologists term ("authenticity" results in increased motivation and drive (along with a host of other mental health benefits). Unfortunately, authenticity remains elusive for many in the workplace. People may feel stuck in jobs where they have to suppress their true self because of incongruent workplace norms around behavior, doubts about what they have to contribute, or fears about being judged negatively by colleagues and superiors. But self-compassion can help people assess their professional and personal trajectories and make course corrections when and where necessary. A self-compassionate sales executive who misses a quarterly target, for example, not only will focus on how she can make her numbers next quarter but also will be more likely to take stock of whether she is in the right sort of job for her temperament and disposition.
Self-compassion can help people gravitate to roles/that better ﬁt their personality.
What's happening here? Treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and without judgment alleviates fears about social disapproval, paving the way for authenticity. Optimism also seems to play a role. Having a positive outlook on life makes people more willing to take chances -such as revealing their true selves. In fact, research shows that optimistic people are more likely to reveal negative things about themselves -such as distressing experiences they've endured or difﬁcult medical challenges they face. In effect, optimism increases people's inclination to be authentic, despite the potential risks involved. I believe that the relative emotional calm and the balanced perspective that come with being self-compassionate can help people approach difﬁcult experiences with a positive attitude.
Turbocharged Leadership A self-compassionate mindset produces beneﬁts that spread to others, too. This is especially the case for people in leadership roles. That's because self-compassion and compassion for others are linked: Practicing one boosts the other. Being kind and nonjudgmental toward the self is good practice for treating others compassionately, just as compassion for others can increase how compassionate people are toward themselves, creating an upward cycle of compassion -and an antidote to "incivility spirals" that too often plague work environments.
The fact that self-compassion encourages a growth mindset is also relevant there. Research shows that when leaders adopt a growth mindset (that is, believe that change is possible), they're more likely to pay attention to changes in subordinates' performance and to give useful feedback on how to improve. Subordinates, in turn, can discern when their leaders have growth mindsets, which makes them more motivated and satisﬁed, not to mention more likely to adopt growth mindsets themselves. The old adage "lead by example" applies to self-compassion and the growth mindset it encourages.
A similar link between leader and subordinates exists for authenticity, too. People can sense authenticity in others, and when leaders are seen as being true to themselves, it creates an atmosphere of authenticity throughout the workplace. There's also substantial evidence that stronger relationships are forged when people feel authentic in their interactions with others.
When leaders respond to failures and setbacks with a self-compassionate attitude, they themselves beneﬁt, being more likely to exhibit psychological and behavioral tendencies that bode well for their own professional development and success. And the beneﬁts can trickle down to subordinates, making the practice of self-compassion a win-win for leaders and those they lead.
Fostering Self-Compassion Fostering self-compassion is not complicated or difﬁcult. It's a skill that can be learned and enhanced. For the analytically minded, I suggest using psychologists' deﬁnition of self compassion as a three-point checklist: Am I being kind and understanding to myself? Do l acknowledge shortcomings and failure as experiences shared by everyone? Am I keeping my negative feelings in perspective? If this doesn't work, a simple "trick" can also help:
Sit down and write yourself a letter in the third person, as if you were a friend or loved one. Many of us are better at being a good friend to other people than to ourselves, so this can help avoid spirals of defensiveness or self-ﬂagellation.
The business community at large has done a good job of removing the stigma around failure in recent years at the organizational level -it's a natural byproduct of experimentation and, ultimately, innovation. But too many of us are not harnessing the redemptive power of failure in our own work lives. As more and more industries are disrupted and people's work lives are thrown into upheaval, this skill will become more important.