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  • 13 September 2022
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Self-Compassion and Mental Health

Eliza Redlus, MA

Clinical Trainer

Two Friends

Imagine you’re out for a Saturday morning walk in the woods. These walks are something you’ve been doing weekly for the past 3 months, and you’ve grown familiar with the walking trail and all its lumps and bumps. On this particular day, maybe you’re more tired than usual or just so engrossed in thought that you don’t notice the large tree root poking out of the ground. Your foot gets caught up in the root, and before you realize what’s happening you are falling facedown into the dirt. In a daze and with a twisted ankle, you lay there for a moment until you hear a person step over you, huff with irritation, and say, “You are so clumsy! You should really be more careful. You’re a hazard to the rest of us by lying there! Get up!” As you watch the person stomp away, you feel a gentle hand on your back and hear another voice warmly say, “Are you alright? That was a hard fall. I didn’t see the root either. It could just as easily have been me that fell. Let me help you up.”

Two people, two very different responses to your fall. Which person do you think you would choose to have as a friend through even more challenging ups and downs in life? Most likely you would prefer the person who treated you with compassion–that is, the person who noticed your pain and was motivated to do something to alleviate your suffering. Presumably, if the shoe was on the other foot and they had fallen down instead of you, you would also want to be the person who showed compassion to them. This raises the question: how do you treat yourself when you’re in pain, whether from a fall or a fail? Are the thoughts you say to yourself critical and harsh, or kind and gentle? It seems that many of us struggle to extend grace to ourselves in the face of our own difficulties, missteps, and blunders. Given that self-compassion has been positively correlated with happiness, life satisfaction, motivation, healthier lifestyle choices, and better interpersonal relationships, it’s worth further exploring what self-compassion entails, why we have difficulty being self-compassionate, and how we can begin to practice self-compassion in our daily lives to improve our overall wellbeing.

What is Self-Compassion?

Psychologist and researcher Kristen Neff has made it her life’s work to study self-compassion. Neff draws important distinctions between the concepts of self-compassion and self-esteem, contending that self-compassion has a more positive impact on both our physical and mental health. According to Neff, self-esteem is rooted in evaluations of our self-worth as better or worse than others and often leads to overly critical self-talk, such as “Why did I do that? I never get it right. I’m hopeless.” Our brain perceives this criticism as a threat and activates our body’s fight, flight, or freeze response, releasing the stress hormone cortisol. If we are frequently self-critical, our stress response system stays activated, and over time high levels of cortisol can make it harder for us to sleep well, regulate mood, and fight illness, putting us at increased risk for anxiety, depression, memory problems, and even heart disease. Self-compassion, on the other hand, removes the elements of judgment and comparison, allowing us to relate to ourselves in a kinder way and actually calm our body’s stress response. As a result, we’re better able to combat symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and shame.

According to Neff, self-compassion is marked by 3 key components. The first component is self-kindness, which involves being warm and gentle with ourselves when we make mistakes, suffer, or feel inadequate. Implicit in self-kindness is an acceptance that difficulties in life are inevitable and can’t fully be avoided. People who are kind to themselves in words and action are better able to cope with stress, frustration, and uncertainty because they accept rather than fight their reality in the moment. The second component of self-compassion is common humanity, which is the recognition that suffering and imperfection are parts of the universal human condition. When we realize we are not alone in our experience, we feel less isolated and are more willing to reach out to nurture our relationships. When we feel positively connected to others, we tend to be more trusting, have a better ability to show empathy to others, and experience lower rates of depression and anxiety. The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness, which entails observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment, just as we might notice clouds floating by in the sky. When we neither push away nor ruminate on our thoughts and feelings, we’re able to develop a healthier and more balanced perspective on our circumstances.

Self-Compassion in the Workplace

Serena Chen, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has expanded on Neff’s work to show that self-compassion can enhance our professional lives as well. When we fail to deliver on a project at work or have an interpersonal conflict with a colleague, we may feel like our self-esteem is threatened and respond with either defensiveness or self-blame. Both responses prevent us from being able to learn and grow. However, if we treat ourselves with compassion instead, we can more realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses, determine what changes need to be implemented for a better outcome in the future, and maintain motivation to improve. According to Chen, people who practice self-compassion are more likely to have a growth mindset when it comes to their work performance, meaning they view their skills and abilities as malleable rather than fixed. As a result, even in the face of negative feedback, they believe that with hard work they can make positive changes.

For those in leadership roles, self-compassion and a growth mindset can have an important impact on the teams they manage. When leaders intentionally practice self-compassion, they become better able to show compassion to their team members. In turn, their team members become more likely to practice self-compassion and develop a growth mindset themselves. In addition, self-compassion cultivates greater authenticity in leaders because it encourages a more realistic and accepting perspective of one’s strengths and failures. Compassionate and authentic leadership has been shown to generate increased motivation, morale, and performance among employees and can lead to a positive shift in the overall atmosphere and culture of a workplace.

Barriers to Self-Compassion

Clearly, self-compassion has numerous emotional, relational, physiological, and professional benefits, but being aware of the benefits does not necessarily mean it’s easy to put into practice. There are several reasons why we may have difficulty being self-compassionate, starting with the way we were treated in childhood. If we were not shown compassion or nurturing growing up—perhaps because of cultural norms in our family of origin or our caregivers’ own mental health struggles—our brain’s ability to soothe us in the face of self-criticism may not naturally kick in. Additionally, we may have been taught and internalized the ideas that self-criticism is positive because it’s proof we want to better ourselves while self-compassion is a sign of laziness, selfishness, or self-pity. As Kristen Neff explains, self-compassion is actually an antidote to self-pity because it helps us shift our perspective from “woe is me” to “life is hard for everyone at times.”

For others of us, we may have simply gotten into the habit of functioning on auto-pilot day-to-day without making the connection between our self-criticism and our experiences of low mood, relationship conflict, or work stress. The practice of self-compassion requires both our awareness and our intention.

How to Become More Self-Compassionate

According to Kristen Neff, self-compassion is a learnable skill that begins with increasing our self-awareness and re-training our brains.

1. Train Your Soothe System Through Deep Breathing

If we tend to be overly critical of ourselves, our brains have likely become wired to quickly respond to negative self-talk by pumping out cortisol, increasing our heart rate and breathing, and censoring the part of our brain that helps us make decisions and think logically. By intentionally practicing slow, deep breathing, we can activate and train our soothe system to take over, giving us the ability to calm our body and mind and think in a more balanced, self-compassionate way.

Box breathing is a simple yet powerful way to achieve this state of calm. Practiced just twice a day for 5-10 minutes, it has been shown to help quiet an anxious mind, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, and support overall mental wellbeing. To get started, find a comfortable chair in a quiet location, and follow these steps:

a) Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds. Feel your lungs gradually fill with air.

b) Hold your breath for 4 seconds.

c) Exhale out of the mouth for 4 seconds at the same rate that you inhaled.

d) Hold the lungs in an empty state for 4 seconds. This may feel unnatural at first. You may find it helpful to place one hand on your belly and another on your heart for feedback as you go.

e) Repeat this sequence four times, which will bring you to one minute of controlled breathing. Work your way up to 5- or 10-minute sessions as you become more comfortable.

2. Challenge Your Critical Self-talk

  • Over several weeks, take note of the words chosen and tone of voice used by your “inner critic.” How do they make you feel? What are the triggers for your critical self-talk? Feel free to write down these observations in a journal if helpful. Then consider some other ways of thinking about your triggers that might allow you to talk to yourself in a more accurate, kind, and helpful way. Write these down too!
  • When you make a mistake, think about how you would talk to a small child or a friend who made the same mistake and extend that grace to yourself. Taking this even a step further, consider writing yourself a compassionate letter in which you address the mistake in a kind and caring way.
  • Start adding the word “yet” to your vocabulary. For example, “I can’t run 3 miles…yet” or “I don’t have the skills to move into a leadership position at work…yet.” This will help in building a growth mindset!

3. Keep an Appreciation Log or Gratitude Journal

One of the ways we can start to be more self-compassionate is by training our brain to notice the positive things in our life. Taking the time to write down what we are appreciative or grateful for creates an intention for our attention! Keep a pad of paper or a journal on your nightstand and before you go to sleep each night write down at least one thing you appreciated or were grateful for that day. As you do this practice over time, you will likely notice an increase in positive emotions and resilience.

4. Work on Becoming Mistake Tolerant

Many of us find our inner critic coming out most strongly when we’ve made a mistake or fail in an endeavor. We may berate ourselves, experience a sense of shame, and even deflect blame to others to cope with our feelings. However, these options don’t help us to develop and grow. Since we are all imperfect beings, learning how to become mistake tolerant is an important part of cultivating self-compassion.

  • Practice making low-risk mistakes (for example, learn a new hobby or skill)
  • Adopt a trial-and-error mindset, which normalizes making mistakes as part of the learning process
  • If you are a parent, own your mistakes in front of your children. If you are a leader, own your mistakes with your team. You will be creating a safe space for people to take risks and grow.
  • Embrace a mantra such as “Mistakes are just happy accidents” or “A mistake is success in progress.”

5. Consider reaching out to your employee wellbeing program to explore additional strategies for cultivating self-compassion in your life.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more email us at service@workplaceoptions.com

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

References

Brach, T. (2019, February 7). Feeling overwhelmed? Remember RAIN. Mindful. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.mindful.org/tara-brach-rain-mindfulness-practice/

Chen, S. (2018, August 21). Give yourself a break: The power of self-compassion. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2018/09/give-yourself-a-break-the-power-of-self-compassion

Marano, H. E. (2019, October 10). How to increase your mistake tolerance. Psychology Today. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-adaptive-mind/201910/how-increase-your-mistake-tolerance

Moore, C. (2019, June 2). How to practice self-compassion: 8 techniques and tips. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://positivepsychology.com/how-to-practice-self-compassion/

Neff, K. (n.d.). Definition and three elements of self compassion | Kristin Neff. Self-Compassion. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/

Neff, K. N. K. (2011, May 27). Why self-compassion Trumps Self-esteem. Greater Good. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/try_selfcompassion

Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2019, January 29). The transformative effects of mindful self-compassion. Mindful. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.mindful.org/the-transformative-effects-of-mindful-self-compassion/

Centre for Clinical Interventions. (2019, September 9) Self compassion. Self-compassion self-help resources – Information sheets & workbooks. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/Resources/Looking-After-Yourself/Self-Compassion

Weiss, L. (2018, March 15). How to bring self-compassion to work with you. Greater Good. Retrieved August 8, 2022, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_bring_self_compassion_to_work_with_you

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