With school starting, I think it is an appropriate time to reminisce on our middle school years. We all have funny stories about making mistakes based on what we thought we knew.
And, for some (or many) of us, much hasn't changed.
We still make mistakes, but in place of middle school drama, we now have to deal with shame and actual monetary repercussions.
Our reactions to our mistakes and uncomfortable situations should distinguish our current day professional, office politics navigating self from our younger middle school self.
Hopefully, the difference is that, now, we can control our emotions and give graceful, reasonable reactions to difficult situations.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because we often lack the needed skills. Many of us were not taught self-regulation skills. As such, judging oneself rashly is often the go-to reaction.
We think we can resolve to avoid future errors by cutting ourselves down or relentlessly monitoring our behavior moving forward. As a coach, I can say that for most of my clients, simply handle mistakes by beating themselves up.
However, this approach is not the best. After a mistake (and whatever repurcussions arise) we need to learn how to regulate ourselves so we can then make healthy and appreciate decisions.
This month, we will focus on building a specific muscle—self-compassion—to help us regulate ourselves.
I acknowledge that a bit of self-criticism and self-analysis are pivotal to self-improvement. Nonetheless, we must also make room for self-compassion to grow past our mistakes and achieve future successes.
Benefits of Self-Compassion
Research shows excessive self-criticism can paralyze rather than motivate, creating bigger problems, including procrastination, avoidance behaviors, and even depression.
● Healthier mindset, promoting personal growth and development.
● Higher motivation, improved learning, and better performance
● Increased empathy for more effective personal and professional relationships
● Increased resilience, decreased narcissism, and decreased maladaptive perfectionism.
● Enhanced leadership skills that extend beyond the self to others.
Self-compassion is also a vital skill in our ability to build resilience. With self-compassion comes an empathic, growth mindset.
What Is Self-Compassion, and How Do I Apply It in the Workplace?
Kristen Neif defines self-compassion as simply being a good friend to oneself. It's like a good friend or mentor who patiently listens to you share a challenge and then says, "I’m sorry you're going through that," "I’m here for you," "I care," or "I will always be there for you."
In the same vein, self-compassion means being with oneself in an accepting way, reassuring oneself that you are not alone. It is being present with one's pain.
Self-compassion is the opposite of being critical of oneself. It involves accepting our human imperfections, but it is not abdicating responsibility when we mess up.
Like a mother comforting a toddler, she isn’t saying, "it's totally OK that you hit that other child and they hit you back". She is soothing the pain, validating and accepting the child despite doing something unacceptable. Once the toddler is calm, she has a better chance of having a “teaching moment”.
Self-compassion (rather than self-criticism) is the most effective way to learn from our mistakes and hiccups in the long run.
Excess self-criticism can make us risk-averse, preventing us from trying new things, acquiring new skills, or challenging ourselves for fear of failure. Sadly, coasting will neither help you reach your professional goals nor help you attain fulfilment.
Mindfulness and self-compassion go hand in hand. We use mindfulness to pause at the moment to notice:
● How we are feeling
● How we are treating ourselves, and
● What we need to regulate.
There are a plethora of things that can happen that cause us to be critical of ourselves:
● Not getting along with the boss.
● Being fired from a job.
● Getting passed over for a job.
● Sending an email to the wrong person.
● Missing a deadline.
● Losing a client.
● Feeling like an outsider on your team.
If a friend had had any of the above happen to them, I bet you won't say, "You are such a loser," "Get your sh*t together", "It’s because you aren’t good enough," "You didn't deserve it, or "You are just terrible at your job."
But, most of us give ourselves the criticizing self-talk after adversity or a mistake.
And frankly, that negative self-talk gets in the way of tapping into the juicy and amazing wisdom we can glean from a challenging situation. When we employ self-compassion, we can more quickly get regulated and see how we might act next time. We also learn how to respond to similar situations in the future and go home with several practical, golden nuggets.
It is difficult to do that when your self-critiquing filter casts a negative shadow on everything.
Mindfulness is an exceptional tool and the foundation of self-compassion because it enables us to be aware of our discomfort and acknowledge it. It allows us to see if we made a mistake or failed. And we sit with (rather than run from) our embarrassment, shame, anger, fear, etc.
Then self-compassion comes in and allows us to respond to ourselves with kindness.
Again, this does not mean we abdicate responsibility.
It means we have a tool to soothe, regulate, and calm ourselves so that latent wisdom can become apparent.
When my 21-month-old daughter gets upset, I go and comfort her—my physical presence helps her regulate her nervous system. From there, when she is calm, we can start to talk about what happened to cause her dysregulation. We can learn and grow from it.
Adults are the same way.
We all make mistakes or errors at some point. Let’s face it, outside of death, mistakes are the one thing we have in common. So why not learn how to recover and learn from them faster?
Self-compassion differs from self-esteem or self-regard, which can be linked to narcissism, constant social comparison, or ego-defensiveness. It is more stable, and one's self-worth doesn’t rely on external factors like accomplishments or the approval of others.
When we feel threatened and instinctually react with our fight-or-flight response (reptilian brain from my Level 1 Mindfulness for Performance Course), our sympathetic nervous system ("the gas" from Level 2) activates. This triggers the release of neurotransmitters like cortisol and adrenaline to get ready to fight, flee, or freeze.
But when our self-concept is threatened, the danger is internal as we fight ourselves with criticism, hoping to get rid of the weakness by forcing ourselves to change. Some isolate themselves in shame. Others freeze in rumination as you spin, trying to replay and fix the situation.
However, by simply activating our natural tending and befriending response (page 26), we tend and befriend ourselves through self-compassion. Many biological markers signal relaxation to us and actually put us in a state of peak performance. Essentially, our parasympathetic nervous system (breaks/relaxation) comes on.
How To Incorporate It Into Your Day:
Stay Mindful: Recognize and acknowledge your emotions. Become an observer that notices the feelings but never becomes consumed or contaminated by them.
Relate: Remind yourself that making mistakes, dealing with adversity, and not fitting in are all normal parts of life.
Regulate: What do I need right now to regulate myself? Self-compassion happens physiologically (like an infant in need of its parents' touch or love), so touch, and affection are highly effective.
If you can't regulate yourself, ask for help from a friend, family member, co-worker, peer, boss, HR, etc. This could be a conversation, a hug, helping complete a task (whatever you need in that moment).
Self-compassion at work doesn’t blind us to our shortcomings or abdicate responsibility. In fact, as research has proven time and again, self-compassion helps us better achieve our goals and cooperate with, learn from, and lead others.