When was the last time you stopped picking apart a project you’ve completed, and simply congratulated yourself for a job well done? Or, better yet, accepted a mistake you made without spending hours berating yourself?
The idea of devoting time to self-compassion feels self-indulgent. But Kristin Neff says the opposite is true. Learning to look after our own emotional, physical and mental well-being helps us withstand the challenges life throws our way, and better support those around us.
Neff is a self-compassion expert. She’s the co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, and author of Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power, and Thrive and Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Yet she’s still prepared to admit that even she finds it difficult to put the theory into practice sometimes.
“I can honestly say that after about 30 years of mindfulness and self-compassion practice, I'm still a mess,” she says. “I still get reactive, I still get angry, I still say things I regret. I'm a little better … but what I have really made movement on is my ability to hold that with compassion.”
Self-compassion isn’t about letting yourself off the hook for difficult emotions and mistakes, or giving into your every whim. It’s about acknowledging the tough parts of life, and giving yourself the love you need to keep going.
Here, Neff explains the two forms of self-compassion, how leaders can benefit from a self-compassion practice, and the connections between self-compassion and mindfulness.
What is Self-Compassion?
The concept of self-compassion is straightforward: Neff explains it as, “Self-compassion just means you want health and well-being for yourself.” But if it was that simple in practice, we’d all be doing it!
An easier way to visualize self-compassion in action is to think about how we respond when someone we love is under threat, versus when we are the ones in danger.
When we’re in a stressful situation, our brains resort to fight-flight-or-freeze. Often, we turn the fight on ourselves. We feel ashamed, and harshly scrutinize our own behavior, in the hopes that this will help us pinpoint a way to save ourselves.
But when the threat is against someone we care about, and not directly against us, we launch into tend-and-befriend mode. We acknowledge their pain, comfort them, advocate on their behalf, and try to help them find a solution.
Self-compassion means switching our internal response to threats from fight-flight-or-freeze to tend-and-befriend.
That doesn’t look the same in every circumstance. Sometimes we need self-compassion to be tender: We need to feel kindness, caring and acceptance from ourselves. “The softer, more parental energy,” Neff says. And sometimes, our self-compassion needs to be fierce: We need to feel a surge of righteous anger and determination, so we can take action to protect ourselves.
Men and people raised as men are socialized to believe that the tender kind of self-compassion is a sign of weakness that’s incompatible with “real” masculinity. In contrast, women and people raised as women are taught to extend compassion to others but not to themselves. They are also taught that fierce self-compassion is unfeminine. “So everyone's out of balance, and everyone needs balance,” Neff says.
Mindfulness is Key to Self-Compassion
Neff describes mindfulness and self-compassion as, “two wings of a bird.” The practices complement each other, and carry you further when used in conjunction.
Mindfulness teaches us to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings, and accept their existence without judgement. This is crucial for self-compassion, because we can’t address our own feelings and needs if we don’t know how to recognize and sit with them.
“You can't be self-compassionate without mindfulness,” Neff says. Otherwise, we fall into our typical human habits of avoiding and overlooking difficult emotions. “You need mindfulness to say [to yourself], ‘Oh, you're really having a hard time, what can I do to help?’”
If you already have a mindfulness practice, self-compassion is a natural way to extend those benefits. It’s not just acknowledging how you feel, but offering yourself a sympathetic response.
“You're enhancing the mindfulness with the explicit warmth and care,” Neff says. “And that's the magic ticket: That's where it all falls into place.”
What Leaders can Learn From Self-Compassion
Leaders might just be one of the sets of people most in need of self-compassion. We like to be in control, tend to drive ourselves hard, and take failure personally. All of which often results in harsh self-talk, and not a lot of self-forgiveness or internalized warmth.
Leaders deserve self-compassion as much as anyone else, by virtue of being human. But on top of being something that can improve your all-round well-being, self-compassion can also make you a better leader.
First of all, constantly pushing and criticizing yourself is a less effective approach to any mission than encouragement. It means that whenever you inevitably fail at something, any progress you’ve made comes grinding to a halt.
You focus on what went wrong and the mistakes you made. You worry that you might make them again. How are you supposed to find a solution with these fears weighing on your mind?
Self-compassion means facing your mistakes head on, and giving yourself the grace to learn from them. “When we accept failure and mistakes as part of the learning process, and when we approach it with kindness and encouragement, we're going to want to do better because we care,” Neff says. “It puts us in a mindset that maximizes our ability to learn and grow.”
Once you’ve learned how to show yourself that benevolence, you’ll find it easier to extend it to your team. Leaders who accept their own mistakes as learning opportunities, and who know the value of an understanding attitude, are more willing to show their employees that same compassion. This promotes an environment of trust, where people feel encouraged to do their best, and supported to find a solution when something goes wrong.
Neff recommends combining the tender and fierce varieties of self-compassion. For example, setting performance goals and clear consequences if those aren’t met, and then asking, “How can I support you in achieving these goals?”
Self-Compassion Isn’t Self-Centered
A lot of self-improvement work is focused on how we can better serve others. A common misconception about self-compassion is that it’s selfish, or that by showing ourselves compassion, we’re limiting how much we show to others.
But compassion isn’t like money in a bank account: You don’t wake up every day with a finite amount that depletes as you take it out! In fact, Neff says, people who practice self-compassion are usually better at showing these qualities to others too.
“What we find in the research is that self-compassionate people are more likely to compromise and make sure everyone's needs are met,” Neff says.
Because they’re addressing their own needs, self-compassionate people are able to avoid burnout, which in turn makes it emotionally possible for them to help others. When you feel like your fundamental needs are being met, you’re more willing to sacrifice to make sure others are being supported too.
Another thing self-compassion isn’t is self-indulgence. The point of the practice is to look after your physical and emotional well-being. If you’re trying to soothe the anxiety you’re feeling through destructive behavior like substance abuse or shopping sprees, that’s not self-compassion, because it’s not good for you.
Self-compassion has been painted as weak, self-involved, and a motivation-killer. But in Neff’s experience, it’s the opposite. It gives us the inner strength to address our greatest challenges without sacrificing our mental health on the way. It gives us the drive to act, knowing that even if we fail, we won’t resort to harsh self-criticism. It makes us want to show others the same unconditional compassion.
“Self-compassion is a healthy way of dealing with the pain of life,” Neff says. “By definition, there's no downside to it.”
The conversation with Kristin Neff continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. We talk more about the connections between self-compassion and mindfulness, how self-compassion can fuel activism, and so much more. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.