Get an Edge on Your Work & Happiness with Self-Compassion

Photo by Dingzeyu Li
Photo by Dingzeyu Li
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The Problem: We’re highly competitive, self-critical and hard on ourselves.
The Science: This focus on achievement actually backfires us and makes us vulnerable in times of failure.
The Solution: Self-Compassion is associated with greater resilience, productivity and well-being.

Strive for more, work even harder, aim to be the best! We live in a society that regularly sends us such messages. Meanwhile, most of us don’t stop to consider whether our goals are possible or whether they would even bring us lasting happiness.

Kristin Neff, associate professor of human development at the University of Texas and a pioneer of research on self-compassion, believes that our society’s emphasis on achievement and self-esteem lies at the heart of much unnecessary and even counterproductive suffering. From an early age, we are taught to build our self-esteem by competing successfully, yet competition is a losing battle. Psychologists have discovered that most people believe they are above average and better than others on almost every trait (the better-than-average effect). This belief helps us ward off painful feelings of inadequacy, but it comes at a price. When our self-esteem rests on the premise of successfully competing against others, we are always precariously teetering on the edge of losing. Social comparison and competition also foster disconnection by causing us to view others as obstacles to overcome in order to keep our position, mark our territory, and vanquish potential rivals. We ultimately feel more separate from others when the primary goal of our desire for success is to belong and to be loved.

It is just not possible to be better than everyone at all times. Yet research shows that when we fail we tend to feel highly self-critical, adding to our misery. Faced with criticism, we become defensive and may feel crushed. Mistakes and failure make us so insecure and anxious that we give up early when faced with future challenge. Down the road this type of competitive self-esteem has been tied to larger societal problems such as loneliness, isolation, and even prejudice.

After observing the pitfalls of self-esteem, Neff went looking for an alternative, a way to set and achieve our goals without beating up ourselves — or anyone else — in the process. Through the practice of Buddhism, she found it in the form of self-compassion. With self-compassion, you value yourself not because you’ve judged yourself positively and others negatively but because you’re intrinsically deserving of care and concern like everyone else. Where self-esteem leaves us powerless and distraught, self-compassion is at the heart of empowerment, learning, and inner strength.

Treating Yourself Like A Friend

However, Neff ’s research suggests that replacing self-esteem with self-compassion may have far superior implications for our mental health and well-being than self-criticism. In one study, for example, Neff found that when faced with a threatening situation (having to describe one’s weaknesses in a job interview), self-compassion was associated with lower anxiety, whereas self-esteem did not impact anxiety levels.

Neff defines self-compassion as:

  1. Self-Kindness: being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure, rather than being harshly self-critical
  2. Common Humanity: perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience, rather than seeing them as isolating; and
  3. Mindfulness: holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness, rather than over-identifying with them.

It is, in a sense, taking on the attitude that one might have toward a friend who has failed at something. Rather than berating him, judging him, and adding to his despair, we listen with empathy and understanding, encourage him to remember that mistakes are only normal, and validate his emotions without adding fuel to the fire. Self-compassion is the ability to act with ourselves as we would with such a friend.

Neff explains that self-compassion is not a way of avoiding goals or becoming self indulgent. Instead, self-compassion is a great motivator because it involves the desire to alleviate suffering, to heal, to thrive, and to be happy. A parent who cares about her child will insist on the child’s eating vegetables and doing her homework, no matter how unpleasant these experiences are for the child. Similarly, taking it easy on yourself may be appropriate in some situations, but in times of over-indulgence and laziness, self-compassion involves toughening up and taking responsibility.

A Better Way to Deal with Failure

When you are motivated by self-compassion, you see failure as the best learning opportunity. Criticism, for example, usually consists of a grain of truth that pertains to us and a grain of resentment or untruth that pertains to the critic’s perception. Because of the sting that accompanies criticisms, we either become defensive or beat ourselves up — and ultimately miss the useful lesson. With self-compassion, however, we view failure with greater calm and understand it as an opportunity from which growth can follow.

Moreover, by preventing the defeating effects of self-criticism, self-compassion allows us to maintain peace of mind and thereby retain our energy. By remaining level-headed and understanding in the face of rejection, failure, or criticism, we develop an unshakable strength and ensure emotional stability independent of external circumstances. Neff explains that self-compassion provides a stable sense of self-worth that fluctuates much less over time, because it is not contingent on looking a certain way or competing successfully. In this way, it allows us to both experience well-being and contribute to society in meaningful ways.

Though research into the physiology of self-compassion versus self criticism is still pending, Neff hypothesizes a simple model. Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream. When this sting has a hold on us, we cannot learn from or engage with the kernel of truth that may be there to serve us. Self-compassion, on the other hand, may trigger the mammalian care-giving system and hormones of affiliation and love, such as oxytocin. Also known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is released in lactating mothers, during hugging and sex, and is associated with feelings of well-being, allowing us to hold the truth without attacking ourselves.

3 Practices for Boosting Self-Compassion

1) Write Yourself a Letter

Take the perspective of being a compassionate friend, so you can imagine that you are this other person. Ask yourself, “What would a compassionate and kind friend say to me right now? What would his or her words be?” Later, come back and read the letter, and receive it from yourself.

2) Write Down Your Self-Talk

If you are self-criticizing because your jeans don’t fit or you said the wrong thing in a situation, write down the self-critical words that come to mind, and then ask if you would ever say these words to a friend. What would a friend say?

3) Develop a Self-Compassion Mantra

Neff suggests developing something that is easily memorized, so that when something difficult happens you can go to your phrases. These are not positive affirmations but reminders. Here is the self-compassion she developed for herself: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion that I need.”

A Story of Self-Compassion

Neff shares a story of working with a group of young veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. She taught them ways in which, in a challenging or anxiety-provoking situation, it is possible to evoke self-compassion through touch. From an observer’s perspective, they are simply crossing their arms, but there is a private intention of giving a self-hug. One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is feeling severely isolated. She describes how one of the toughest-looking veterans in the room said, “I don’t want to let go.” He felt such relief from this new attitude of self-nurturing. And that’s something you can try right now.

For additional techniques by Kristin Neff to increase self-compassion, go to self-compassion.org.

This article originally appeared at Emma Seppala.com.

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Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä

EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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