Newsletter – June 2022
Spotlight on… treating yourself with kindness
I’ve seen a trend in my work that no matter what the original coaching goals, at some point in our work together, the realisation emerges that the way in which a client is talking to themselves (their inner dialogue rather than under-the-breath mutterings about others) is not kind and certainly far less kind than how they speak to friends or loved ones. Think about this for a moment. What goes through your mind when you’ve done something which wasn’t ideal; a mistake, an oversight, a mis-step? What do you say to yourself? How does that make you feel? Does it give you support, energy and motivation?
Like many in the legal profession, I was a perfectionist, with perceived short-comings staying in my thoughts for a long time afterward the event, sometimes eating into my free time or stopping me from having a good night’s sleep. My inner dialogue was predominantly self-critical and it not only affected my confidence but also my wellbeing. Part of me knew that this wasn’t bringing me the fulfilled life I was hoping for but another part of me was resistant to change, fearing that a more self-compassionate approach would risk the loss of my drive or motivation.
As this is a common concern, let’s start with reassurance and clarification. Self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence or self-pity, both of which can lead to unhelpful behaviour. Nor is self-compassion the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is often dependent on our perceived success relative to others or on circumstances (and can make feedback difficult to accept). Self-indulgence, self-pity and self-esteem can lead us to overlook, distort or conceal our shortcomings, making it difficult to see ourselves accurately and easier to avoid the temporary difficulties we encounter when we want to make long term changes.
In contrast, self-compassion, or self-kindness if you prefer, is a superpower. It builds inner strength. There are now thousands of research studies supporting its value and it has been shown to contribute to flourishing and performance at work and home, supporting well-being and building resilience even against trauma. It’s also a good antidote to imposter syndrome and perfectionism.
So, what is it? Compassion is the ability to notice that someone is suffering, feel connected to them, and want to act to alleviate the suffering. The call to action is one of the things that differentiates compassion from empathy which is more passive. Self-compassion is compassion directed towards yourself.
There is a number of ways in which you can build self-compassion and one is by regularly practicing a three-step process. Firstly, to acknowledge in a non-judgmental way what difficult feelings are coming up for you. It may for example be self-blame, frustration or fear of failure. It can be all too easy to push these feelings away or to avoid them (eating chocolate was a personal favourite). Then, speak to yourself with the same kindness which you would naturally show a friend or loved-one who is struggling. Perhaps you’d acknowledge the difficulty, reassure them that the problem will not last forever, that they have shown resourcefulness in the past which might help in this situation or that they are forgetting those things which they are doing really well. Finally, notice if you are making the situation very personal (for example, ‘only I made this mistake’ or ‘only I am experiencing this’). Take a moment to appreciate that all humans suffer. Being human brings with it being mortal, imperfect and vulnerable (as much as we might sometimes try to deny this). Self-compassion involves recognising that what you are experiencing is part of the shared human experience; it’s not just happening to you, it’s something that we all go through in one shape or another. Self-pity, self-indulgence and trying to raise self-esteem can be isolating. Self-compassion connects us to others.
Self-compassion is like a muscle, you can strengthen it through practice. The two pioneering researchers in this field are Dr Chris Germer and Dr Kirstin Neff, both have written and spoken extensively about their work. The website self-compassion.org is a great place to start exploring this further.
It’s sometimes helpful to know that if exercising self-compassion is unfamiliar to you, you may experience what’s referred to as ‘backdraft’, to borrow a firefighters’ term. This is because sometimes starting to develop this practice can cause old pain which hasn’t yet healed to emerge. Acknowledging this pain is a really important step. Depending on its source, it might be appropriate to work with a therapist or coach as identifying and becoming aware of these barriers can help to break them down. Alternatively, it might be enough to pull back temporarily during practice, for example by bringing your attention to your surroundings, focusing on your breath and the feeling of your feet on the ground or behaving in a self-compassionate way such as enjoying a cup of tea or stroking your pet. Remember that it’s a skill you are learning and depending on where you are starting out from, it may take time and regular practice. Learning takes place in your zone of discomfort but not overwhelm, and where these boundaries lie is different for everyone. If the idea of self-compassion is alien to you, you might want to start gently. Also, it’s worth remembering to be self-compassionate about any tendency to bring perfectionism to your self-compassion practice!
I found that learning self-compassion was a game changer for me personally and also for many of my clients, bringing with it a myriad of personal and professional benefits. In many ways, learning to exercise self-compassion is just the start. It is not a prerequisite for showing compassion for others; many people, such as healthcare workers, who show high levels of compassion to others can have difficulty accessing self-compassion initially. However, it is thought to counteract compassion-fatigue and develop an appreciation of our connection to others. Strengthening our capacity for self-compassion has much to offer our own resilience, wellbeing and performance as well as creating work-places and societies where we can engage positively with and support each other even where, on the surface, we are separated by differences.
Stephanie Wheeler is a leadership, personal development and team coach and writer. She has a MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change from Henley Business School and is ICF and EMCC accredited. She was formerly a solicitor with Clifford Chance, Pinsent Masons and in-house at Sotheby’s and you can find further information on LinkedIn or her website.