Commonly asked questions about Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we give to others in our lives. We readily offer support to those around us if they are struggling in some way, however we easily neglect ourselves, particularly when life feels challenging and we need compassion the most. It isn’t our fault we do this, we are a mixture of our genes and experiences, we aren’t taught to be compassionate to ourselves and we have very few role models for this approach.

Self-compassion consists of three core components:

  • Self kindness – being kind and understanding towards ourselves when we are having a hard time rather than harshly self critical
  • Mindfulness – being aware of what we are thinking and feeling in the present moment rather than instantly reacting or overreacting to our perfectly normal thoughts and feelings
  • Common Humanity – remembering that we all make mistakes and experience difficulties at times, we are not alone

Developing the three core components of self-compassion helps us to stay healthy and psychologically well, both day to day and in the long term. Self-compassion gives us the opportunity to look after and value ourselves as well as accept ourselves for who we are more fully.

YES! One of the most wonderful aspects of self-compassion is that it is a trainable skill that any of us can learn, at any stage of life and use to support ourselves through the challenges of life in a psychologically healthy way. This is because self-compassion is not an emotion or a feeling, it is not a state or trait that we are either born with or without, it is a dynamic skill or mindset that anyone can develop. This mindset is available to us all, at any time, in any place.

Many research studies have shown that even relatively brief training in self-compassion can be highly effective. With practice, self-compassion can offer us immense personal power. We are not dependent on anyone else to provide this to us and being self-compassionate only increases the authentic and sustainable compassion we are able to offer others in our lives.

There is a huge body of peer reviewed literature evidence to support the benefits of self-compassion. People who are self-compassionate are happier, more optimistic, have greater levels of gratitude and better relationships with others. They are less harshly self-critical and judgmental, they engage in less self-sabotaging behaviour and have a lower tendency towards perfectionism, they feel less isolated and more connected to the people around them and they can manage their difficult feelings more easily.

Self-compassion is consistently shown in research studies to be a protective mechanism in a wide range of wellbeing indicators including mental health. This approach provides us with greater emotional resilience and reduces our levels of stress, anxiety and depression, as well protecting us from burnout.

If you would like to use a valid and reliable measure of self-compassion you can follow this link to Self-Compassion Scale developed by Dr Kristin Neff Take the Self-Compassion Test

This test is free, easy to use, provides you with immediate scores and no contact details are required.

This internationally recognised and evidence-based tool will enable you to test your current levels of self-kindness, mindfulness and common humanity as well as assessing your self judgement, isolation and over-identification with your thoughts and feelings. You also receive an overall score of self-compassion which you can use as a baseline measure at the start of your self-compassion development journey. Completing this test will enable you to more fully appreciate the ways that you can enhance your self-compassion across all three core components and understand how you can reduce the negative aspects that may be holding you back in your life. You can repeat this test as many times as you like to assess your growing levels of self-compassion.

Many people come to self-compassion with lots of assumptions and objections. Some people think self-compassion equates to going on spa days! Although increased self-care is an important aspect of self-compassion, the key purpose of this approach is to be healthy and happy, both physically and psychologically by alleviating our suffering.

We may think that being self -compassionate will make us selfish, but the research evidence and our own practice shows that self-compassionate people are more able to meet the needs of others as they have more resources available to give. They are not constantly depleted of energy or reserves as they can emotionally support themselves more fully.

What we also see is that self-compassionate people are more proactive in investing in their health and wellbeing. We know, that as adults, no one else will look after our health and wellbeing as well as we can look after it ourselves on both a day to day basis and in the longer term. These activities include hydrating enough, eating healthily, sleeping for long enough, exercising in ways we enjoy – particularly in nature, as well as resting and relaxing to ensure that we are operating at our best. None of this sounds lazy or self-indulgent does it? The opposite in fact!

When we practice self-compassion the research shows that we are less likely to procrastinate and more likely to make changes in our lives that we know will benefit us, and stick to them. This approach is a powerful source of coping and resilience, it allows us to be kinder to ourselves if we make a mistake and support ourselves as we would a good friend. The most liberating aspect of self-compassion is that it enables us to recognise that we are human beings doing our best, with what we have and that, although this may not be perfect, it is enough.

Work is an important and large part of our lives, in that we spend a lot of time there. It gives us purpose and helps us to meet our needs and obligations as well as giving us the opportunity to have an impact and make a difference. But inevitably, at times, difficulties will arise. Self-compassion gives us the confidence to cope when the challenges do come along and allows us to seek out support from others when we need to.

Self-compassion is associated with higher levels of motivation and job performance by enabling us to build better relationships and act more compassionately towards others. It also enables us to switch off from work, rest and recover more fully and hold our work life balance and boundaries around work more mindfully. These factors improve our ability to do our jobs to the best of our ability.

Many of the self-compassion exercises we advocate and offer on our programmes (some of these can be found in our Resources Section) can be completed in a matter of minutes. In fact, some only take a few seconds – such as saying a self-compassion statement to yourself in a moment of difficulty. Rather than needing time, we need to adopt a mindset which enables us to recognise when we are finding something difficult, accept our thoughts and feelings around this with no judgement, recognise that many other people would, in all likelihood, feel the same way and then ask ourselves what we need or how we can be kind to ourselves. This is self-compassion in action and it literally takes seconds!

Having lots of time available is far from a requirement once you have got to grips with the basic approach. In fact our Self-Compassion at Work Programme is designed to be brief (less than eight hours in total and spread across four or more weeks) and provides a full grounding in the theory and practice of self-compassion.

Reading through the resources available our website, considering one of the books we list in our further reading or if you really want to kick start your self-compassion journey then have a look at our brief programme which will enable you to take a kinder and more compassionate approach to yourself.

Commonly asked questions about Compassionate Leadership

Compassionate leadership extends our self-compassion practice to include all those we manage in the workplace. Once we have started to develop our self-compassion, we can use this knowledge and skill as a springboard from which we can listen deeply to those we lead, understand the challenges they face, offer empathy towards them and then take wise action to help. This is compassionate leadership in action.

Being a compassionate leader enables our teams to feel psychologically safe as all the interactions we have with them have compassion at their core. We are able to encourage and support our teams to work together and collectively achieve the goals we have set, ensuring that everyone is included.

As compassionate leaders, we don’t shy away from the challenges, we recognise these are an inevitable part of any process and have the confidence and insight to remove the obstacles our teams face. We do not micro manage or tell our teams what to do, we coach and support them to find the right answers for them, encourage them to innovate and to take the learning from their mistakes and challenges along the way.

Our job as compassionate leaders, is to support our teams and colleagues to perform the roles they are trained for. In short, compassionate leaders are tasked with caring for those in their charge, rather than being in charge. We are still able to hold people accountable and ensure the objectives of the team are met, but in the most effective way possible. We can offer constructive feedback in a kind, open and straight forward manner as compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive.

Compassionate leaders affect change one effective interaction at a time. Ensuring that we are offering ourselves kindness, authentically connecting with those around us and accepting our thoughts and feelings without judgement, paves the way for us to offer others an authentic and sustainable compassionate approach to those we lead.

A compassion in leadership approach brings people together to work towards a common goal knowing they will be included and treated fairly with respect. Compassionate leaders are sought out for their advanced emotional intelligence and the success they achieve in terms of team performance and team loyalty are highly valued.

Anyone in a leadership or management role, in any sector and in any organisation, can develop their compassionate leadership skills and abilities once they have the solid foundation of self-compassion to build on. Self-compassion provides the resilience and capacity to offer others a compassionate approach, in all areas of our lives, including at work.

A four factor model proposed by West and Chowla (2017) suggests that compassionate leadership is a characteristic of interactions, not individuals, and consists of four key aspects:

  • Attending – which means being able to deeply listen with fascination to those we lead and recognise the signs of difficulty when we see it
  • Understanding – which means being able to appraise the cause of the difficulty being shared with us
  • Empathising – which means being able to tune into the difficulty being shared and understand the cause and wider context
  • Action – which means being able to take wise and intelligent action to help

Compassionate leaders are able to put all these elements together and use them seamlessly to engage with those they lead. If you would like to develop your compassionate leadership skills you might want to look at our page on compassionate leadership development.

There are a number of ways we can do this but a great place to start is with the following aspects in mind:

  1. Notice – Try to always be present in the moment and able to recognise signs of distress when they emerge, mindfulness practice and keeping a mindfulness journal can help with this
  2. Self-check – Be aware of what you are thinking and feeling because this will inevitably influence every interaction that you have
  3. Seek understanding – Listen with curiosity to comprehend the other’s perspective – seek to understand rather than be understood, recognising our common humanity with all our fellow human beings
  4. Cultivate compassion – Show genuine concern based on what you have come to understand and show how you lead with compassion
  5. Discern best action – Co-plan with the person to figure out what would be helpful to them rather than impose your view on them and tell them what to do
  6. Take action – Be aware that intention alone is not compassionate action, to build trust we need to ensure that we do what we say we are going to do

Compassionate leaders are able to use a coaching approach, which enables more open questions and active listening skills to encourage and support those they lead. If you are a senior leader and would like to know more about our one to one coaching programme you can find more information here.

What we know from the research is that compassion is contagious in organisations. Not only for the giver and receiver of kind acts, but also for all the witnesses, because seeing actions of kindness triggers their own parasympathetic nervous systems as well, releasing hormones such as oxytocin which increases our sense of safety and security. Then our ‘mirror neurons fire’ which acts as a form of ‘neural wifi’, this increases expressions of compassion in the organisation and the staff view their organisation more positively as a result. Encouraging compassionate interactions, whether these are verbal, non-verbal, written or behavioural, are the backbone of a growing culture of compassion in an organisation.

Compassionate leaders recognise the need for trauma-informed care due to the fact that many of us have experienced trauma at some point of our lives, which influences our subsequent behaviour, both at work and closer to home. When leaders appreciate and understand this and show acceptance for their own and others’ experiences in life, this supports a compassionate leadership approach. Furthermore, compassionate leaders are less likely to experience stress and burnout as they have the inner resources to support and replenish themselves during challenging times in the workplace and are less likely to experience compassion fatigue.

When an organisation proactively engages in a programme of compassionate leadership development this will only support their strategic aims in terms of higher levels of retention, less sickness absence, greater productivity and improved financial success. We support many organisations to develop and build a compassionate culture, you can find out more about the ways we do this by following this link.

Any organisational culture is a reflection of the key behaviours that are repeated across the workforce. Leaders (and their behaviours) have the biggest influence on organisational culture and they individually and collectively hold the key to compassion flourishing in, and across, an organisation. This work starts with leaders themselves developing their self-compassion and then building on this work to develop their compassionate leadership.

If we consider compassion as being ‘helpful and not harmful’ to self and others, extending this to underpin all the values that are aspired to and all the behaviours that we expect and hope to see in an organisation, then a clearer picture of what a compassionate organisation looks like emerges. The goal for all organisations is to promote compassion:

  • As a legitimate organisational driver
  • In the conduct of organisational life
  • In all the interactions that take place within the organisation and when engaging with their customers/clients/product and service users, the communities they serve and other organisations
  • In the decisions that are taken by leaders in the organisation with compassion being a unifying principle
  • Through the working practices, policies and procedures for the workforce and for the people responsible for upholding these throughout the organisation

When organisations are able to develop this approach, the research shows that they improve their effectiveness, they are able to recruit and retain their most valuable resource (namely the people who choose to work there), their staff engage with the organisation more fully and authentically, their financial performance is improved and they are able to innovate, adapt and evolve more successfully.

To embed compassion in an organisation, it is important to start at the top with the most senior leaders and Executive Team or Board. Leaders have the greatest influence on an organisation’s culture. It is their responsibility to support the workforce to do the jobs they are trained for and ensure that the systems and processes for this are in place. Presenting an evidence-based business case for compassion in organisations and gaining buy-in for a culture of compassion, from the most senior leaders, is the first step to rolling this approach out throughout an organisation.

From appreciating the difference compassion can make to an organisation’s success, we need to ensure that the staff delivering the organisation’s products or services are given the tools to enact self-compassion. Caring for ourselves in a busy work environment can be challenging, so this needs both systems and processes in place but crucially also requires managerial or leadership support. Middle and Team Managers have a key role to play, ensuring they are well informed regarding both self-compassion and compassionate leadership and have the techniques to role model these behaviours. Thus leaders are equipped with resilience and enabled to support their teams more effectively.

In short, we need to address the needs of everyone who works for the organisation, at all levels. Ultimately, compassion in the workplace starts with self-compassion.

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