When I talk to people about self-compassion, their first reaction is often one of concern or disbelief. They think that being kind to themselves will make them weak or complacent; they believe that self-criticism keeps them accountable or improves their performance; and they worry that letting go of the habit of self-criticism will somehow render them less capable. What they don’t know is that the opposite is true: beating themselves up and holding themselves accountable to unattainable standards are actually very likely to undermine their performance.
Recent research indicates that self-criticism predicts depression, avoidance behaviors (such as trying to avoid failure), loss of self-esteem, negative perfectionism (maladaptive perfectionism, the unhelpful perfectionism that doesn’t drive us toward better performance but, rather, toward shame and anxiety), procrastination, and rumination. Ultimately, self-criticism compromises your goals and undermines your pursuits, whether they are academic, health related, personal, or professional.
Ultimately, self-criticism compromises your goals and undermines your pursuits, whether they are academic, health related, personal, or professional.
Self-compassion engenders resilience; it empowers you to be nimble and flexible, and gives you the ability to identify problems, accept negative feedback from others, and change habits that no longer serve you. (In Silicon Valley parlance, it enables you to “pivot.”) This type of openness to change and resilience to setbacks helps you grow, learn, form good habits, and, ultimately, be more successful.
Four ways to practice self-care at work
Practicing self-compassion is as important as applying compassion to others. When feeling self-compassion becomes challenging, try the following approaches:
1. Use lunch as an act of self-care. When you eat, take a moment to notice this nourishment you’re giving yourself. You have the power to choose to eat something that makes you feel good. Bonus: research shows that when you make a healthy food choice, noticing the positive feelings this gives you serves to reinforce the behavior, making you more likely to choose healthy foods the next time.
2. Remember that, just like you, we all feel like frauds. When you find yourself in self-deprecation mode, calling yourself names, telling yourself that you can’t do something well enough, and generally being a bully to yourself, remember that most people suffer from this “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that we are just pretending, that we don’t really belong, that we will be found out, that our true inadequacy will become obvious to the people around us, who are, for some reason, being tricked for the time being. The fact is that everyone you work with, no matter how self-assured they seem, experiences self-doubt. This is the human condition. And these are just thoughts, so you don’t have to believe them.
3. Be a friend to yourself. As corny as that may sound, it’s a trick my business school students have found incredibly useful. When you notice you’re being hard on yourself over a problem, imagine a dear friend coming to you with the same problem. How would you respond? How would you offer support? What would you say? How would you regard your friend? Now try giving these responses to yourself.
4. Ask for help. Many of us are caught up in the idea that we need to “be a professional,” which we equate as being stoic, handling things on our own. In this mind-set, we don’t think to ask for kindness or validation. In fact, we would likely refuse to accept it. Over time, though, this “I’ve got this” attitude begins to wear thin, and we realize we can’t do our jobs alone. Experiment with giving someone else the chance to support you. If this is a completely foreign idea to you, then I suggest you do it even more. People like to help! Think of how you feel when you get to help others. Helping people makes us feel good about ourselves and connected to others. So, instead of defaulting to “No, thanks” or “It’s okay, I’m fine” when someone offers you something, try saying yes. It took until I had my third child to be willing to allow a friend to put together a meal delivery list, because I was unwilling to ask for help. It was a breakthrough experience for me, and when I went back to work, I found that I was better able to ask for help when I felt overwhelmed by things, such as constructing the lab notebooks for my class. In that case, an administrative assistant happily stepped in and enjoyed the process.