I am what I half-jokingly refer to as a recovering perfectionist. Throughout my under- and post- graduate studies and during my time in law, I believed that what drove my success was my quest for perfection. I was very hard on myself. Any perceived short-coming in my performance stayed with me for a long time afterwards, accompanied by negative inner dialogue. Part of me knew that this approach was not 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 concern is not uncommon, let me start with some reassurance and clarification. Self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence or self-pity. These can lead us to unhelpful behaviour which prevents growth and change. Nor is self-compassion the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is often dependant on our perceived success relative to others. As a result, we might find feedback difficult to accept and notice that our self-esteem is dependent on circumstances. All three can encourage us to overlook, distort or conceal our shortcomings, making it difficult to see ourselves accurately and also to avoid the temporary difficulties in making long term changes for our well-being.
In contrast, self-compassion is a power house. There are now thousands of research studies supporting its value and it has been shown to contribute to flourishing at work and home. It’s been called inner strength building, supporting well-being, building resilience and improving performance. It’s also a good antidote to imposter syndrome.
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. This call to action is one of the things which differentiates compassion from empathy. Self-compassion is compassion directed towards yourself.
In a nut-shell, it involves 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, fear of failure. The second is to take a moment to think about the very many people who are in a similar position as you, also struggling with the same difficulty. This isn’t about minimising your difficulty instead, it is acknowledging that being less than perfect, failing or suffering are all part of our shared human experience. Self-pity, self-indulgence and trying to raise self-esteem can be isolating. Self-compassion connects us to others. The third step involves speaking 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.
Barriers to self-compassion are not uncommon, for example, from early experiences or the culture from which we come. Giving or receiving compassion can be difficult at first and give rise to fear, sometimes showing up as anxiety or embarrassment. Identifying and becoming aware of these barriers can help to break them down. It helps not to bring perfectionism to your self-compassion practice!
Self-compassion is like a muscle, you can strengthen it through practice. Dr Kirstin Neff is the research pioneer in this area and her website is a great place to start (https://self-compassion.org/). It’s worth knowing that if you are not used to speaking compassionately to yourself, you may experience what’s referred to as ‘backdraft’, to borrow a firefighters’ term. Sometimes starting to develop self-compassion can help old pain to emerge. Acknowledging this pain is a really important step; depending on its source, it might help you identify the need for therapy or coaching, or to pull back temporarily (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).
Contrary to my early fears, self-compassion brings a myriad of personal 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 who show high levels of compassion can have difficulty accessing self-compassion initially. However, it is thought to counteract compassion-fatigue. Furthermore, intrinsic to compassion is the acknowledgement of our shared humanity and developing an appreciation of our connection to others. Strengthening this through practice has much to offer in 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 a former solicitor with Clifford Chance, Pinsent Masons and in-house with Sotheby's. She is now a personal development and leadership coach and can be contacted through LinkedIn or her website www.stephaniewheeler.co.uk.
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