This year has been a year like no other. A global pandemic, racial injustices, and political uncertainty have created a perfect storm of upheaval and uncertainty. Many people have been feeling an unwelcome cocktail of anxiety, depression, grief, and even trauma. Nearly eight out of ten executives have reported poor mental health during this time and 70% of working professionals report that they have never felt more stressed or anxious throughout their careers as they do now. For those who are trying their best, but may not be at their best, it’s ok to give yourself a break, take care of yourself, and show yourself some compassion.
I recently spoke with Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, about the importance of self-compassion in these trying times and how to practice it. Neff describes in her book that compassion, by definition, is relational. It’s something we offer others, but we can also offer it to ourselves. Moreover, self-compassion is a muscle we can build that makes us more resilient over time and allows us to be more optimistic. It encompasses three main components.
Being Mindful. Practicing self-compassion first requires that we notice our suffering. It’s not avoiding, rejecting, or suppressing it, which can make things worse – the axiom “What we resist persists” is quite true here. Mindfulness involves the nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of our current experience. We can’t show ourselves compassion if we don’t acknowledge what we’re feeling. Instead of unconsciously being in the thick of our emotions, mindfulness allows us to step back and say, “I’m going through a really hard time right now.” Neff says, “Recognize that this is hard for you. Call attention to it. Be aware of it instead of shoving it away or being lost in it….the first thing has to be to become aware that you’re suffering.”
Often, unpleasant emotions will register first in the body, and we may notice a physical sensation before we recognize exactly what we are feeling. It might be that our heart starts racing, our muscles tighten, or we feel “a pit in our stomach.” Naming the associated emotion can help raise our awareness about what it is that we’re experiencing. Your body will never lie to you. It will tell you exactly what you are feeling. You just need to listen to what it is saying and put it into words. Like tuning into a clear signal on a radio dial, tuning into exactly what message your body is sending you can take some practice, but becomes easier over time.
Being kind to ourselves. This is not about self-pity or self-indulgence – it’s about being kind and understanding with ourselves versus self-critical and judgmental. We all have some version of an inner critic that causes us to beat ourselves up and demand, “Why can’t you just get it together?!” Being kind to ourselves when we’re having a hard time involves showing ourselves the same care, concern, and desire to help as you would with a good friend, colleague or loved one. Neff describes that showing kindness to ourselves, “actually helps us feel safe…and that sense of safety helps us feel less overwhelmed.” It’s asking ourselves, “What do I need in this moment to take care of myself?” It might be taking a day off, taking a nap (one of the perks of working from home) or going on a walk.
To be clear, this doesn’t preclude you from reaching out to others for support. Neff adds that “actual support [from others] is also good…That’s part of caring for ourselves is helping ourselves get the support we need from others.” Neff also explained that “We still need to give ourselves that warmth and sense of worthiness ourselves. Our friends aren’t with us at three in the morning when we wake up and thoughts are going through our heads.” It’s in these times that we can ask ourselves what we would say to a good friend who is in the same situation.
Reminding ourselves of our common humanity. When we are struggling in some way it can often feel like we are the only one, which leads to feelings of isolation and even envy of those who seem to be doing well, and can create a downward spiral of despair. Our perspective can become myopic, creating what Neff calls “a type of emotional tunnel vision,” making us feel even more disconnected. By broadening our lens to see ourselves as part of the human race, in which everyone is imperfect and fallible, we help to normalize our painful experience. It’s recognizing that at one point or another in life, we all experience difficulty, frustration, challenge, and even failure. It’s what she called “the wisdom of remembering we aren’t alone.” Developing this wisdom and seeing our common humanity allows us to feel more connected to others and not so alone in the world. Neff shared that in her workshops, one of the most powerful ways she helps to build a sense of common humanity is by having people talk in small groups where they invariably say, “Oh, really? You do that, too?”
I asked what might get in the way of self-compassion – both practicing it and actually “letting it in.” Neff shared two main barriers – one physiological and the other cultural. Whenever we detect something negative (like a pandemic, for example), or we fail in some way, our brain perceives this negative information as a threat. Our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we go into reactive mode – fight, flight, or freeze – to try to make ourselves feel safe. Neff explained, “We’re less thoughtful. We’re less able to see the big picture, like ‘Oh wow, everyone suffers in this way.’”
A key cultural barrier to self-compassion is the belief that self-compassion will undermine our motivation; that we need to be hard on ourselves to be motivated to do our best, when in fact, self-encouragement is shown to be a more effective motivator than self-criticism. The other cultural barriers are gender-related. Women, who tend to be socialized to put others first, are more prone to the fallacy that practicing self-compassion is selfish. Neff explains that “It’s not a zero-sum game…It’s just including ourselves in the circle of compassion.” For men, the obstacle tends to be viewing self-compassion as a type of weakness.
Practicing self-compassion is not about letting ourselves off the hook or making excuses. People who are self-compassionate still set high goals for themselves – but they aren’t as rattled if they fall short of these goals, as they are more likely to adopt a growth mindset and learn from their failure or difficulty. Moreover, they continue to set high goals for themselves after a set-back. Self-compassion also doesn’t make our suffering automatically go away, but it allows us to deal with our negative thoughts and feelings more directly – and in a caring way. It creates the space for them to run their natural course, so we can restore our sense of equilibrium and build our resilience so we can weather the next storm that passes through.