Self-compassion is a skill that is often lacking in the workplace. We often drive ourselves very hard to achieve or simply to keep up, even when it damages our health. We don’t always cut ourselves a lot of slack when we struggle to balance our work life and family life or cope with challenging problems. Many people are dogged by a self-critical voice that pipes up every time a mistake is made with variations on the theme of “you just aren’t good enough” or “you should be ashamed to have made that mistake”. When faced with a new challenge, the inner critic reminds us that we probably won’t succeed and may just end up making a fool of ourselves. Moreover, we often believe that we are the only people who suffer in this way.
Self-compassion is our ability to be kind, forgiving and accepting of ourselves. It is our ability to care for ourselves in the same way we would care for a child or dear friend: with tolerance, warmth and nurturing. We can be self-compassionate whilst recognising that we make mistakes and have many imperfections and limitations.
In that sense, it is different to self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, which all invoke more evaluation of how good or bad a person we are (often in relation to others) or how good or bad at doing something we will be. There is a judgement involved and the positive evaluation of ourselves is often dependent on us achieving certain things.
Self-compassion is a warmth towards our selves simply based on the fact that we are human. We don’t need to be good at anything or successful at anything to be self-compassionate; we care for ourselves just as we are. In this respect, it is rather like Carl Roger’s concept of unconditional positive regard except it is directed towards ourselves instead of others.
There are many meditation practices that help people to develop self-compassion. One example consists of visualising a wise being who sees our inner most thoughts and secret actions and offers us warmth and acceptance just as we are. You could also try this guided Befriending Meditation by Danny Penman.
In yoga, we learn to cultivate steadiness and ease in our bodies rather than strain, and learn to accept our physical limitations with kindness. It is a good lesson that can be taken off the mat and into our lives.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapists help their clients to be more aware of how their inner critic may be sabotaging them and teach their client to replace this voice with a more positive and encouraging voice. The client can learn to recognise where their internal narrative is critical, unkind or even abusive, and learn to challenge it. So if the inner voice says, “you are going to mess up this presentation” they can become aware of this thought, and consîder what evidence there is that the thought is actually true. There may in fact be evidence, perhaps previous successful presentations, that can be use during to challenge the inner critic.
So, why is self-compassion an important career management skill? Self compassion helps us to be more accepting of difficult emotions, including fear, shame and anxiety. Most career changes involve some level of fear and anxiety, as we may worry that we could be making the wrong decision, that we might not be up to the job, that we might not be able to make a living, or that we will find it hard to adjust to a new environment. Self-compassion helps us to accept these difficult emotions as a normal part of life, rather than something to be avoided or hidden. If we accept them we can explore what they feel like rather than try to repress them or mask them as something else (possibly resentment, apathy, irritation or stuckness).
Self-compassion can also help us to take responsibility for mistakes, be willing to listen to feedback and be more accountable for our actions. Instead of beating ourselves up for getting something wrong, we accept that mistakes are part of being human and we learn from them rather than hide them. This willingness to learn and develop helps us to cultivate the growth mindset which has been shown to be an important element for success. Wouldn’t any employer want to employ or develop the person who asks for feedback, takes responsibility for the outcomes of their work, and owns up to their mistakes whilst trying to put them right?
Self-compassion is also closely linked to compassion for others. Warmth towards ourselves is likely to increase feelings of warmth for others too, as we realise we are all on the same journey, experiencing the same range of feelings. Being able to form warm relationships with others is an important skill for networking, management and customer relationships. Warm and genuine relationships can help to generate opportunities, as others are more likely to approach us if they feel there’s is a genuine connection.
Imagine approaching a job interview with a genuine sense of both self compassion and compassion for others. We would accept that we were nervous and understand that everyone else probably is too. Maybe we could even extend that sense of compassion so that instead of despearately hoping that we’ll get the job, we offer the wish to the interviewers that they have the wisdom to pick the best candidate for their organisation, and we offer the wish to both ourselves and the other candidates that we can all give our best performances. Sounds hard to do but it would probably lower the stakes and reduce our sense of desperation. And even when we make mistakes and don’t achieve our potential, self compassion allows us to forgive ourselves, learn from our mistakes and wish the successful candidate well. With self compassion the experience is less bruising, so we will be less likely to give up.
Self compassion can help us to be more resilient, more able to bounce back from setbacks and more able to ride out difficult challenges.