Why its better to treat our failures with self-compassion rather than self-criticism
Updated: May 10, 2018
Why it is better to treat our failures with self-compassion rather than self-criticism
“I am the poster child for failure”, announced one of my clients the other day. In that moment, I felt my heart drop, as I became acutely aware of the level of self-loathing my client was experiencing and the importance of self- compassion. I asked myself, how in response to one failed project, can such a successful high achieving executive see herself like this? I’ve been working with this client for a few months and I knew not only had she’d delivered many successful projects, she is also a well-respected leader. She is successful, she is smart, she cares and works hard. Her inability to practice self-compassion which is not uncommon with successful people as they don’t find themselves in this space often.
As an Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness based coach, I use the work of Dr Kirstin Neff, who is a leading researcher in self-compassion. Dr Neff is the first person to measure and define the term “self-compassion” which she describes as:
Mindful awareness of emotional and mental states
Understanding that suffering and failure are part of the shared human condition
An ability to exercise self-kindness, which entails being gentle, supportive, and understanding to oneself
Self-compassion is the practice of changing the way we view our failures and to see them as part of who we are, but not how we define ourselves. We can then move from ‘being the poster child of failure’ to a more balanced and kinder approach of thinking: such as; “I was unsuccessful in that project”. This shift in our thinking provides us with the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and move forward in a constructive way. Having self-compassion is the difference between how we experience failure in that we don’t define ourselves as a failed person. This shift in thinking changes our experience in that the way we feel and behave in response to those two statements then differs significantly.
Research conducted by Barnard & Curry (2011), demonstrates that there is a positive correlation between self-compassion and emotional and mental well-being. People who are able to practice self-compassion are happier, as they have greater life satisfaction, social connectedness, emotional intelligence, and less anxiety and fear. It makes sense that self-compassion has been linked to improved resilience too. As we enter the era of the Robotic Revolution, resilience is important for anyone whose work life is impacted by the three R’s : Robots, Restructures and Redundancies.
Working as a career transition coach with clients who’ve been made redundant, I often find that clients think they have done something wrong to cause their redundancy. I’ve seen some companies in New Zealand use this process, to ‘move on’ under performers, but that is rare. In most cases, the redundancy is a result of a restructure, driven by genuine business change.
Clients made redundant try to make sense of the situation and can turn inwards and begin to blame and criticise themselves. This is when self-compassion really needs to show up. I ask my clients to think about someone they love and care for and I ask, “what you would say to this person if they were in your situation?” The words they use are generally kind and supportive. I then ask them to try and offer the same words of kindness and support to themselves. If we lose our sense of self-worth during challenging times then we will have a hard time getting through these challenges. Finding a way to bounce back quicker builds not only resilience but also encourages us to take positive actions.
Relationships also improve when we practice self-compassion, as its hard to be in a positive relationship with others if we are not in in a positive relationship with ourselves. How we treat ourselves reflects how we allow others to treat us. If we are kind to ourselves, we are more likely to be kind to others and others will reciprocate this level of kindness. Sadly, the reverse applies too. This cycle perpetuates: I know this as I worked as a family violence Counsellor for almost a decade in that if we are unkind to ourselves we may be more inclined to be harsh to others.
For most of us this is a mind-set that requires active cultivation, here are a few ideas and suggestions on how to build self-compassion which you may wish to try:
Practice mindfulness, as in non-judgmental awareness of both emotional and mental phenomena.
Keep a check on the voice in your head, is it kind or unhelpful? Try journaling in response to a challenge and then review what you wrote to see if it was a kind or critical response.
Silence your inner critic and re-frame critical thinking. Talk to yourself as if you would talk to a dear friend or someone you care about.
Remind yourself that you are not alone. Failure and suffering are part of the shared human condition.
Manage your expectations. Good enough is more than enough, give yourself permission to make mistakes and that being the best won’t necessarily bring you more happiness, but trying to be the best may very well bring you more stress and unhappiness.
Get support. All workplaces should be offering programs that support emotional well-being. Work with a coach, access your Employee Assistance Program or attend an Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness training course.