You’re a lousy presenter/parent/partner/person/(fill in the blank)
If you’ve ever heard a little voice inside your head pointing out your every mistake, critiquing your every move, berating you each time you didn’t nail it or fell short of your ideal (unlike ‘everyone else’ who seem to glide along effortlessly), then you’ll know how constant, critical and discouraging that voice can be.
Let’s face it, if there’s one thing many of us are good at, it is beating up on ourselves. Despite how kind we can be to those around us in difficult moments, many people can be outright cruel to themselves. Our innate negativity bias drives us to attend far more to our failures and dwell on our deficiencies. And when we do nail the presentation, win the prize and get it right, we quickly downplay or pass over those successes with only a fleeting celebratory moment before our attention is pulled back to what we have yet to do or could still do that bit better. It’s a vicious, self-diminishing-cycle.
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Of course, compassion, which is defined by our sensitivity to the experience of suffering and our desire to alleviate it, is a virtue we all admire. Yet research shows that many people – particularly women – find it far easier to extend compassion toward others than toward themselves.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin and the author of Self Compassion, has spent over a decade studying self-compassion. In our interview for my Live Brave podcast, she shared with me her theoretical framework for self-compassion which consists of three core components – self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness of suffering.
Self-kindness vs. self-judgement. That is, treating yourself with the patience, empathy, warmth, and understanding you’d extend to a friend rather than sitting in harsh, ‘you idiot’ self-judgment.
Common humanity vs. Isolation. That is, viewing your fallibility as part of the larger human condition. This requires us to recognize our connection to others and embrace our fallibility and struggles as an intrinsic part of simply being human rather than as proof of our inadequacy, which just leaves us feeling isolated and disconnected.
Mindfulness vs. Over-identification (holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings with ‘warm regard’). Practicing mindfulness entails observing what you are thinking and feeling with a warm heart, rather than trying to avoid difficult feeling or to over-identify with them and make things bigger and more dramatic than they actually are.
Self-compassion can sound like a ‘feel good’ fluffy way of dealing with disappointments, failures, and mistakes, but a growing body of research has found going easier on yourself is not just the loving thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Multiple studies have found self-compassion can:
• Deepen interpersonal relationships (self-compassionate people are easier to live and work with)
• Improve positive body-image (warding off the potential for eating disorders)
• Counter rumination (something women are particularly prone toward)
• Enhance motivation, improve learning (fostering a ‘Growth Mindset’) and strengthen performance
• Foster resilience to bounce back faster from loss and setbacks
• Counter ‘maladaptive perfectionism,’ procrastination and narcissism.
Often the executives I work with, many of whom can be pretty tough on themselves, respond cynically so my suggestions to be little kinder on themselves. Their comments run along the lines of:
Surely going easy on myself is self-indulgent? It’s setting the bar high and expecting a lot from myself that drives me to work hard and get ahead. Heck, I’d probably turn into a lazy slacker if I stopped being so hard on myself.
The data shows otherwise. In fact, studieshave found that people who practice self-compassion are not less motivated to work hard and get ahead, they are more so . Since they don’t measure their self-worth based on the results they achieve, they are more likely to try things and risk failure. They know that if they don’t get the outcome they want, it won’t be the end of the world. Nor will it mean they’ll feel like a loser. Rather, they’ll take the learning and move on, that bit wiser.
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Interestingly, research into self-compassion has debunked the once widely-held belief that high self-esteem is the strongest predictor of success. Self-compassion is now regarded as more valuable for wellbeing and performance than self-esteem, from helping students succeed in the classroom to enabling adults to bounce back from setbacks and thrive in life.
One study of students found that those with higher levels of self-compassion were able to handle disappointment more positively and stay more motivated to keep trying after their failures. Accordingly, they were less prone to the performance anxiety that plagues so many young people (and plenty of the not-so-young.) Because self-compassion circumvents the often-debilitating self-evaluation process, it liberates people to give themselves permission to risk failure more often. This in turn helps them learn more, grow more, and succeed more.
If you’re wondering how you can be more compassionate with yourself, I invite you to start by simply paying attention to how often you aren’t. If your inner critic has permanently set up shop in your head, chances are your self-recriminations have become transparent to you. There are many ways to cultivate self-compassion, including the Mindful Self Compassion program created by Neff and Chris Germer.
As someone with a well-entrenched habit of focusing on my flaws and shortcomings, I have become better at catching myself in self-critical moments (there are plenty to catch!). When I do, I ask myself what a close friend or loving God would say to me in that moment. Then I say that to myself…out loud when I can. I get that it sounds a little woo-woo, but I invite you to try it. Then notice how it shifts how you’re feeling, however subtly.
The truth is that we are all ‘human becomings’ – fallible, flawed, and wired to dwell more on our shortcomings and failings than we are to celebrate our strengths and successes. As I share in my Live Brave podcast with Kristin Neff, it is by embracing our humanity – for all that we are and for all that we aren’t – that we can savor more moments of gratitude, joy, and connection over the course of an ordinary day. We can also spare ourselves the needless suffering that comes from feeling isolated, inadequate and unworthy.
As author Jack Kornfield wrote, “If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it is incomplete.”
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