We tend to be our own worst critics.
We focus on what we believe we lack. And we judge our own setbacks much more harshly than we would judge others’ challenges.
Even worse, ruminating on perceived shortcomings drains valuable energy that could be used more productively.
It’s not always easy to treat ourselves with kindness, understanding, and empathy, though.
When people ask me how I’ve built my startup to 4.2 million users, they want me to talk about passion or how much I love what I’m doing.
The truth is I’ve often been my own worst critic across this journey which has been full of ups and downs. And I’ve learned that cultivating self-compassion takes time. It took me 12 years.
Self-compassion is an attitude we can all learn. And it’s also an attitude that I want to model for my teams at JotForm.
I wanted to share a few thoughts on what “self-compassion” means, and how we can actually cultivate more kindness toward ourselves.
Self-esteem versus self-compassion
Self-esteem is often considered a prerequisite for success. Self-compassion is less commonly discussed, but it can have even more powerful effects.
While self-esteem is a positive emotion we feel toward ourselves, especially when things are going well, self-compassion is about being kind to ourselves at all times — even when we fail.
It doesn’t involve judgments, like “I’m good” or “I’m bad.” It’s a form of self-understanding that persists, regardless of external factors.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and an expert on self-compassion, says that people with high levels of self-compassion exhibit three important behaviors:
- They’re kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes;
- They recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and
- 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.
Imagine it’s your turn to present a monthly report. Just before the meeting begins, your nerves start to creep in. You stumble through your notes, skip key pages, and you can feel the group’s attention slipping away with every minute.
In the end, it wasn’t your best performance.
Rather than beating yourself up in a cycle of negative thinking, self-compassion promotes a more understanding reaction.
Sure, you feel a little down, but the experience doesn’t shatter the rest of your day — or your month. You simply acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes.
Though a healthy dose of self-esteem never hurts, studies show that self-compassion is even more beneficial for well-being and performance. It’s also far more than a “touchy-feely” response to challenges, both big and small.
A little self-compassion goes a long way
Developing self-compassion has many potential benefits for our professional lives.
Growth & resilience
People with self-compassion typically have a “growth mindset.” When they experience a failure or setback, they focus on their ability to grow and improve, rather than giving up.
That’s because people with a growth mindset see traits and abilities as malleable. They know, for example, that they can learn from something like a botched presentation.
On a related note, self-compassion helps people to be more resilient.
In a powerful study on self-compassion, Dr. Neff and her colleagues worked with U.S. veterans to test their resilience after returning from war. Using a 26-item questionnaire, the researchers rated subjects’ level of self-compassion. The study concluded that the more self-compassionate veterans were, the less severe their PTSD symptoms were.
As Dr. Neff told the New York Times,
“a lot of people think self-compassion is weak, but it’s just the opposite. When you’re in the [emotional] trenches, do you want an enemy or an ally?”
Self-compassionate people are better at owning up to their mistakes, too.
When researchers at UC Berkeley measured how self-compassion affects personal growth, they found that people who had just completed a self-compassion exercise were more motivated to admit and apologize for their mistakes than those who had done self-esteem or positive distraction exercises.
The self-compassion group was also more committed to avoid repeating their mistakes.
Empathetic managers also create stronger connections with their employees.
When self-compassionate leaders have the growth mindset I mentioned earlier, it extends to their employees, too. They’re more invested in team development and typically offer constructive feedback to help employees can improve.
When leaders care about progress, it motivates everyone to improve — and hopefully, to exceed the expectations we set.
Long-term career benefits
Self-compassion can also be increasingly beneficial as your career unfolds.
People with self-compassion often stay true to themselves, because they care more about doing fulfilling work than chasing social approval.
This authenticity pushes them to pursue roles that fit their passions and personalities.
When you’re kinder to yourself, you’re probably less stressed out as well.
According to Harvard researchers, “Expressing empathy produces physiological effects that calm us at the moment and strengthen our long-term sustainability.” These physical benefits prevent the kind of burnout and health risks associated with chronic stress.
In terms of mental wellbeing, self-compassion has many of the same benefits as self-esteem: less depression, more optimism, greater happiness, and more life satisfaction.
As we all know: happier workers are better, more productive workers.
Three steps to improving your self-compassion
As I mentioned earlier, cultivating self-compassion takes time. I always think of it as a muscle that must be exercised day in and out, with full control.
According to Dr. Neff, there are three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, common humanity, and self-kindness.
1. Mindfulness means being aware of the here and now. And in difficult situations, it means being aware of your suffering, rather than ignoring your pain.
Before we treat ourselves with compassion, we have to understand what we’re feeling — the pain, the discomfort, the shame — and what situation or event is causing those feelings.
Once you quiet your mind and acknowledge what you’re feeling, you give yourself the emotional space required to move forward.
Mindfulness not only improves our own mental health, but it also increases compassion toward others.
2. Acknowledging our common humanity means reminding yourself that we’re all human. We all suffer, and others would likely feel the same in your situation. We all make mistakes. Instead of feeling ashamed of that presentation blip, remind yourself that it happens to everyone at times, and it’s normal to feel a little embarrassed. Then, allow yourself to move on.
3. Self-kindness means having a warm-hearted response to yourself. If the presentation didn’t go well, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t be more judgmental of yourself than you would be of others. Quiet the overly-critical inner voice, and instead, try speaking to yourself the same way you would a friend.
Dr. Neff even suggests treating yourself to a small act of kindness, such as drinking a soothing cup of tea or listening to music.
Finally, one small trick that can be incredibly powerful after a setback: write yourself a letter in the third person, as if you were a friend. List your accomplishments and your most enduring positive qualities.
This process can help give you the perspective and reassurance you need to bounce back, and to avoid getting KO’d after a minor blow.
Rewrite the stories you tell yourself
In today’s competitive workforce, self-compassion is an underrated virtue.
By actively practicing the three components of self-compassion, however, we can all develop a more compassionate relationship with ourselves — and those around us.
It’s difficult to rewrite your inner monologues. When something goes wrong, that critical voice inside can get louder. It’s especially common for high-achievers; people who set lofty goals high and expect a lot from themselves.
But once we learn to tell ourselves a new story, one that focuses on our common humanity, we can reshape how we react to setbacks.
Like the penguin, we can stop dwelling on the negative and free ourselves to live happier, more productive lives.