Updated: Oct 6, 2022
People, most often, would very much like to feel better about themselves. This is a normal desire. We live in a world where we think DOING more is going to lead to greater happiness, fulfillment and self-confidence. Although, in some aspects this is true, what if going inwards and treating yourself more kindly helped improve personal and professional outcomes? I want you to ask yourself how many times per day you say things to yourself that you wouldn't usually say to others. For most of us, it is quite a lot.
What kinds of statements do you make?
How much do you focus on your inadequecies?
Where do you leave room in your day to feel better, more whole and complete?
It's a common pattern for people to focus on the negatives, expecially in today's world where we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. With that in mind, I am going to make the case for you that taking the time to treat yourself better will improve your life outcomes, overall confidence and personal growth.
Let's define what self-compassion really is. Thanks to researcher Kristen Neff, we have a globally recognized definition."Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding towards oneself when encountering suffering, inadequacy or failure, rather than ignoring one’s pain or flagellating oneself with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals"
In other research she further spells out self-compassion as being composed of three things:
Self-kindness Vs. Self-judgement: This is more fully accepting our strengths and weaknesses. Not resisting the things we need to improve by criticizing ourselves but rather seeing it objectively and acknowledging we are not perfect. This is a more open-hearted approach which leaves room for improvement and more gentle self-talk. Think Growth Mindset!
Common Humanity Vs. Isolation: We ALL suffer and have strengths and weaknesses. Cultivating a shared sense of struggle not only alleviates our tendency to self-loathe but it also helps us appreciate that others are going through some of the same challenges. Thus, this helps build empathy.
Mindfulness Vs. Over-identification: Mindfulness is the capacity to be in the present moment and observe what is happening objectively and non-judgementally. It is a remarkably powerful technique for deep transformation and cultivating more joy in your life.
So, now that we have a foundational understanding of what self-compassion is (and it's components) let's explore some of the benefits of cultivating self-compassion. Research in this field is not sparse and you can find a lot of studies which outline various experiments done to reach these conclusions. Kristen Neff has done considerable work in the area and really helped pave the way for continued understanding. Through her research, Neff has found that individuals who are self-compassionate often benefit in several ways. They tend to have better psychological health and also greater resilience when compared to those with lower levels of self-compassion. Neff also found that self-compassion is positively associated with life-satisfaction, emotional intelligence and social connectedness. What is it negatively associated with? Depression, anxiety, rumination, thought suppression and perfectionism. This means that individuals who are self-compassionate are less likely to experience these things.
One major paper published by Kristen Neff and colleagues showed how self-compassion was associated with greater wisdom, curiosity exploration, happiness, optimism, and positive affect. In addition, they found a link between self-compassion and personal initiative which is defined as a desire to grow and change in ways that lead to living a more productive and fulfilling life. This is actually quite significant because it shows that self-compassion leads to personal growth rather than self-indulgence. Imagine this in life, business, leadership and career development? One of the biggest findings came from this study which showed that war veterans who were more self-compassionate, experienced lower symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder vs. those who were not. This implies that self-compassion builds greater emotional resilience. Dr. Neff added that self-compassionate people also tend to ruminate less because they can “break the cycle of negativity” by accepting their own imperfections.
Self-compassionate people are better at owning up to their mistakes. Juliana Breines and Serena Chen of the University of California at Berkeley conducted a series of experiments to measure the effect of self-compassion on personal growth. In one study, they asked people to think about something they’ve done that made them feel guilty (lying to a partner, for example). From there, subjects were assigned to a group: self-compassion, self-esteem control or positive distraction control. The self-compassion group had to write to themselves “from a compassionate and understanding perspective.”
The self-esteem group was instructed to write about their own positive qualities, and the positive distraction group was asked to write about a hobby they enjoyed. According to the study, those who practiced self-compassion were more motivated to admit and apologize for their mistake than people in the self-esteem group or positive distraction group. The self-compassion group was also more committed to not repeating their mistakes. Can you think of why this might be? In my opinion, it's because the emotional magnitude of the 'mistake' for self-compassionate people is not as high. Therefore, they can more easily navigate tense and uncomfortable emotions to get better perspective and outcomes.
So, What About Confidence?
Still, of course, there are many benefits to being confident, even if it’s a put-on. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that simply appearing more confident makes people believe you deserve more respect and admiration, possibly helping you reach higher social status. Another study published in Plos One found that when people are overconfident, others overrate them as smarter and more skilled. In other words, there’s something to the “fake it until you make it” phenomenon. But self-compassion and acceptance can offer a whole suite of other benefits: It’s easier for self-compassionate people to improve on those mistakes, failures or shortcomings because they view them more objectively. Research shows self-compassion is an effective motivator in this way.
For example, a study asked people to describe themselves while being recorded on video. Those subjects were then told they would be rated on how likable, friendly and intelligent they seemed in the video. Subjects who had high levels of self-compassion had generally the same emotional reaction no matter how they were rated. By contrast, people with high levels of self-esteem had negative emotional reactions if the feedback was simply neutral and not exceptional. They were also more likely to blame unexceptional ratings on outside factors.
“In general, these studies suggest that self-compassion attenuates people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem,” the researchers concluded. Without the pressure to be superhuman, it’s easier to accept feedback and criticism. It’s much harder to learn and improve when you believe you already know everything. As we would say in Zen, "In the beginner's mind there are many opportunities. In the expert's mind there are few." This has wonderful applications to career growth, in particular in the area of leadership. If you can readily accept feedback from colleagues, your bosses and direct reports you are in a much better position to make gradual (but noticable) improvements in your behavior. This, of course, will go a long way in supporting others in a team or organizational setting.
What’s more, self-compassion has been shown to help people better empathize with others. Again, great news considering that emotional intelligence and empathy are the number one predictors of career and leadership success today. Dr. Neff and her colleague, Tasha Beretvas at the University of Texas at Austin, have found that people rate self-compassionate partners as more caring and supportive than self-critical ones. So, if your partner points out a flaw, you’ll do better to accept it and forgive yourself than beat yourself up and dwell on it.
The Magic Question: How To Practice Self Compassion
This, of course, is at the heart of the matter. For many of us, self-compassion does not come easy and we don't exactly know where to begin. With that in mind here are a few tips to get started:
1) Begin a mindfulness meditation practice. This is crucial to building self-awareness and self-regulation. When you develop these two qualities, it becomes far easier to recognize the kind of self-destructive thought patterns that lead you towards anger and loathing.
2) Better self-talk: Actively engage in dialogue that is kind and understanding towards yourself. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) operates with the premise that our thinking, creates our emotions, which then creates our experience. So by changing our thinking, we change our experience. With my clients I often encourage them to both make positive, affirming statements and/or proactive, positive and future oriented questions. Here are some examples:
I may not have succeeded today but what can I learn to help me in the future?
There is so much more right with me then wrong with me. Here is a list:
How can I get the best out of this situation and use my strengths to overcome this challenge?
Who in my life still loves me. If they were here, what would they say? Can I also say this?
Am I the only person in the world who has made this kind of mistake?
Will this really matter in one or two years?
3) Cultivate a gratitude practice: This is such a wonderful practice in itself but it also helps you to re-orient the way you think about and perceive the world around you. When you are genuinley grateful for the things you have it's far easier to look at yourself and in a positive frame of mind and extend love and care.
4) Baby steps: As with anything new, it takes a while to get used to it and habituate the practice. It is NORMAL to be self-depricating. Just make an effort to gradully integrate this practice into your day. First, you can start by finding a time. Ideally, in the morning and evening for 5-10 minutes. Then, find more times throughout the day to engage in self-compassion. Before too long, it will become your default response.
Just imagine, if you can, a life where instead of constant stress, strain and emotional hardship you could more fully enjoy youself, your time and your experiences. A kind of feeling where your vulnerable self was open, ripe for reflecting and facing yourself and your challenges was easier. It wasn't tiring or difficult to receive feedback and there was a natural tendency to embrace growth and change and not resist it. You didn't judge yourself as harshly and there was always opportunity when faced with challenge. In addition, extending understanding, patience, kindness and compassion to others was easier. You didn't find yourself dwelling too long on the frustration caused by other's view points or behaviors. It is easier to understand where they come from therefore a more clear path to conflict resolution. In short, your heart opens up for yourself first. Forgiveness occurs, tensions dissipate and your capacity to do the same for others is a natural extension of this work, thus improving relationships, leadership and professional growth.