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Is self-compassion self-indulgent?

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Interview with Kathleen Cator

When you're struggling to stay motivated, feeling paralyzed by fear or looking straight into the face of failure, how do you push yourself through these moments? Do you let your inner-critic loose and give yourself a stern talking too? Or do you reach out with self-compassion and talk to yourself like a wise and kind friend would?

I have to confess that for most of my life, I've let my inner-critic go wild as a means of trying to achievement. After all, how else was I going to prove that I was good enough, smart enough or worthy enough to be respected, valued or loved?

Lately however I've grown tired of all the fear she keeps whipping up, and so much to her horror I've started playing with self-compassion instead. And while at first I worried that being kind to myself in these moments might make me soft or let me get away with things I shouldn't, in reality it's left me feeling stronger and more confident to keep tackling the goals that matter most to me.

So is treating yourself like an enemy or an ally the best way to unleash your brain's potential at work?

"It's easy to think that if you don't criticize yourself regularly, you'll be letting yourself off the hook," explained Kathleen Cator psychologist and Self-Compassion teacher when I interviewed her recently. "However, the research shows that when you're caught up in self-criticism you're actually likely to be more self-absorbed, more anxious and stressed, less likely to see things clearly and as result less productive at work".

This is because studies are finding that your brain interprets your harsh inner criticisms in the same way that it does an external threat. It triggers your fight, flight or freeze response helping you to either defend yourself, escape from the threat or if you feel too overwhelmed to disassociate from the situation. As a result, neuroscientists have found that the self-punishment that accompanies self-criticism often disengages you from your goals and undermines your performance.

"In contrast, self-compassion is about treating yourself as you would a good friend," said Kathleen. "If you think about a time when you showed compassion towards a friend you probably noticed they were struggling or having a difficult time, reached out with kindness and a willingness to listen, and offered your support to help them. Self-compassion simply turns these practices inward."

Hundreds of studies have now found that by acknowledging your difficulties or failings with self-compassion, you can calm down your physiological system and are less likely to be left floundering in self-pity, social comparisons and self-doubt. In fact, self-compassion has been found to be an effective antidote for your self-critical mind that can help you to learn from your mistakes, be more optimistic and hopeful about the future and to improve your relationships, your happiness and your job performance at work.

How can you practice more self-compassion?

Kathleen recommends trying these three practices.

  • Give yourself a self-compassion break - practice the three elements of self-compassion when you're having a difficult time or make a mistake. First, slow down and notice how you're feeling, and recognize that the stress or anxiety in your body feels difficult. Secondly, accept that you're human and just like everybody else you're still learning. Try to be a little less judgmental and more understanding towards your situation. Finally, give yourself some kind words of encouragement.

If you find it difficult to know what to say to yourself, bring someone to mind that you really care about, and think about what you would say to them. Use reassuring words such as: "I'm here for you"; or, "You know you're doing your best"; or "what can I do to support you the most at this time of need?"

  • Hit your reset button - when you need to interrupt the self-critic from ranting! Use touch to soothe your physiological system by giving yourself a hug, placing a hand on your heart or simply holding your wrist with the opposite hand for at least seven seconds and breathing slowly.

This unleashes the pleasure-inducing hormone oxytocin you're your blood stream which helps to lower your levels of cortisol and improve your focus and concentration.

  • Write a self-compassionate letter to yourself - think of something that stirs up your feelings of insecurity or not being good enough. Now call to mind an imaginary friend who is
  • unconditionally wise, kind and compassionate, who can see all your strengths and weaknesses, including those things you really don't like about yourself. Write a letter to yourself about the inadequacies you are judging yourself for from the perspective of this imaginary friend.

What would this friend say to you? How would they encourage you in a caring, encouraging and supportive way to make the changes you need to make? After writing the letter, put it down and then come back to it at a later time. Notice how the it leaves you feeling to show yourself this kind of kindness.

How can you show yourself at little more self-compassion at work?