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It is the season for self-compassion

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As we approach Christmas and the New Year, we often reflect on past experiences and future expectations. We consider the choices we have made and are yet to make; our achievements to date and those we hope for; and the current version of our self, versus our ‘best possible future self’. Unfortunately, upon this reflection we often feel disappointed, disillusioned and falling ‘short’ of our expectations, hopes and dreams. We then ruminate about our perceived shortcomings, spending too much time in our heads instead of living our lives and enjoying the holiday season.

Recall a time when you encouraged a friend or coached a co-worker through a difficult time. It’s likely that you felt empathy for them and helped them recognise that life is messy, imperfect, and sometimes filled with negative experiences. Self-compassion involves applying this sense of warm, positive regard towards yourself. According to Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor at the University of Texas, and the foremost researcher on self-compassion:  

“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings — after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect.”

People with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviours: First, they are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes; second, they recognise 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. For instance, when we experience a setback at work—whether it’s not meeting the monthly KPI’s, 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 become self-critical and berate ourselves. Unfortunately, neither response is helpful for the situation or our psychological wellbeing. Instead, if we were to treat ourselves as we would a friend in a similar situation, we would be more kind, understanding, and encouraging. We would focus on ways to turn the situation around, and improve our performance moving forward. Self-compassion is about ‘doing unto yourself as you would do unto others.

Self-compassion is a useful tool to enhance our confidence, productivity, performance and professional growth in the workplace. Over time, it can help employees 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. Self-compassion can help people assess their professional and personal trajectories and make course corrections when and where necessary. Self-compassionate people are resilient – when they face setbacks, they are more likely to take action, and try again until they reach their goal. They are less afraid of failure and see it as an opportunity for learning and growth.

People who engage in self-compassion tend to have higher self-esteem, however the two concepts should not be confused. Self-esteem involves evaluating oneself in comparison with others. Self-compassion 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. Self-compassionate people experience greater connectedness, emotional intelligence, happiness, optimism and overall life satisfaction. They are less likely to experience, depression, anxiety, negative thinking and rumination, and poor psychological wellbeing.

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