Self-Compassion is not indulgent, it's important for resilience
"Resilience is based on compassion for ourselves as well as compassion for others"
Sharon Salzberg (bestselling author & Buddhist meditation practitioner)
A leader enters their office early on a Monday morning and sees a folder on their desk. The folder contains an outline of a new, ambitious, exceptionally challenging project. A project that will require months of hard work, lots of collaboration with colleagues and meeting tight deadlines. If successful, the project may act as career leverage. If unsuccessful, the weight of project failure could rest solely on their shoulders. Before doing anything, the leader sits and thinks, considering two main questions…
How might this affect me and do I care?
What can I do about this and will it be enough?
This two-step process is known as an appraisal; it constitutes a primary (is the task a challenge or a threat?) and secondary appraisal (do I have the resources to overcome this?) (1) Appraisals can be conscious or unconscious, fast or slow, positive or negative. The leader slumps in their chair, feeling overwhelmed by the project, unsure as to whether their resources are sufficient to meet the task demands and frightened at the prospect of failure. They close the folder and suggest that the project is handed to someone else.
Does this sound like a resilient leader?
Now imagine a different scenario. This time, on receiving the folder, the leader feels motivated to get started on the project and whilst they recognise the challenge ahead, it excites them. According to Dr David Fletcher and Dr Mustafa Sarkar, this way of thinking represents a challenge mindset and is characteristic of resilience (1).
Self-compassion: contradictory or complementary?
Unfortunately, it is often believed that to be successful, you need to be relentlessly self-critical (2). In the eyes of many, setting high standards, working long hours, fixing strict deadlines, and adding to an ever-mounting ‘to-do’ list, is a display of resilience. In reality, it is probably only a matter of time until that final straw breaks the camel’s back. Self-criticism leads to greater stress (3), compromised mental health (4, 5, 6), poorer performance (7) and eventually, burnout (8). Unchecked, a vicious cycle forms whereby individuals underperform and seek to break through by, you guessed… working longer hours, fixing stricter deadlines, and adding to an ever-mounting to-do list. But research is pointing towards an antidote for this “work harder, not smarter” mentality: self-compassion.
“The biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they will become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says that being hard on yourself is the way to be”
Dr Kristin Neff (self-compassion pioneer)
How self-compassion can build resilience through a challenge mindset…
Resilience isn’t just about being able to cope with pressure, it’s about overcoming it, without compromising well-being or performance (9). A challenge mindset empowers resilience, as individuals appraise challenges as an opportunity to show what one is capable of, rather than as an opportunity to fail (1). Importantly, a challenge mindset is not the sole determinant of resilience nor is it necessarily simple to develop. A challenge mindset takes time to develop, and our personality, our psychological skills and the environment all play a role in our ability to appraise stressors as challenges rather than threats. Resilience is multifaceted, and whilst this blog focuses on self-compassion, many other factors foster resilience. You can read about them here…
Self-compassion has a role to play in altering negative thinking patterns into more positive, constructive, proactive ones. Self-compassion is about more than cutting yourself some slack and accepting things as they are, it’s about a true acceptance of self. An acceptance that recognises, without judgement, that your feelings, your faults, your thoughts and your behaviours are all part and parcel of being human (10). By practising self-compassion, research suggests that we can develop the ingredients necessary for a challenge mindset, thereby facilitating resilience (6, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). In their research, Fletcher and Sarkar (1), identified a number of negative thought patterns. I have used some of these as the basis for offering some self-compassionate alternatives, which will help to foster a challenge mindset.
Practising self-compassion has been shown to increase optimism (6, 16), proactivity (17) and confidence (18). Even when things don’t go as planned, self-compassionate individuals are less likely to attribute their ‘failure’ to a fault of their own but rather, to recognise it as part of the human experience (12, 16). They are also more likely to ‘bounce-back’ from setbacks without fear of making future mistakes (15). Self-compassionate individuals can embrace challenges with a positive perception of themselves, feeling assured in their own abilities and recognising that mistakes are a part of the journey (12, 13, 14).
The good news is that, with practise, leaders can develop their ability to be self-compassionate (9,19).Here are some exercises to get you started…
Notice your negative thought patterns: the next time you feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or anxious, take some time to notice your thoughts. Are you resorting to negative thought patterns? If the answer is yes, think about some self-compassionate alternatives using the examples above. You could even write these down so that, in times of stress, you have something to turn to.
Name your feelings: rather than suppressing how you feel, notice your feelings, take 60 seconds to say how you’re feeling out loud. This technique enables you to adopt a more accepting approach.
Think about someone you love: Imagine that a friend, partner, or family member is in your shoes, what advice would you give them? How would you respond if they were resorting to negative thought patterns?
Dr Kristin Neff, described as a pioneer of self-compassion, provides plenty of free resources for people wanting to become more self-compassionate. You can find those here…
Self-compassion is contagious
The benefits of self-compassion don’t end with the leader. Research indicates that compassion is contagious and as a leader develops their own self-compassion, the benefits can permeate an organisation via two avenues (20).
A self-compassionate leader is more likely to show compassion towards others
As employees receive compassion, they will pass it on
As compassion grows throughout an organisation, the possibilities are endless. Organisations fostering a compassionate culture have found…
Strengthened interpersonal relationships and trust (21)
Enhanced job satisfaction (20)
Enriched employee commitment (20,21)
Stronger organisational values (21)
Enhanced well-being (9)
Improved performance under pressure (9)
As leaders, it is important to pave the way (2, 22). Through one’s own practise, a leader has the capacity to demonstrate that self-compassion is not indulgent, it is an important factor in developing resilience.
"The environment should be fundamentally created around a nurturing and compassionate culture that facilitates (athlete) resilience and well-being"
Dr David Fletcher (2019) (23)
Many of us have become seasoned professionals at being self-critical (2)
In the face of stressors, resilient individuals can adopt a challenge mindset, viewing stressors as challenges rather than threats (1)
Research suggests that self-compassion fosters optimism, proactivity and confidence (6, 16, 17, 18)
Self-compassion promotes elements of a challenge mindset, by helping us to change negative thinking patterns into positive ones.
To develop self-compassion, start by noticing your own negative thought patterns, name your feelings, and treat yourself like a loved one.
Compassion is contagious, and as a leader develops their ability to be self-compassionate, the benefits trickle down into the organisation (20).
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