I have been working as an occupational psychologist supporting leadership and staff development across all sectors for the last twenty five years. I specialise in providing coaching and evidence-based programmes that enable people to develop their self-compassion and compassionate leadership in the workplace. Self-compassion is an entirely teachable skill that can offer us immense personal power to cope with the challenges of life and work in an increasingly uncertain and constantly changing landscape.
I discovered self-compassion and the work of Dr Kristin Neff (the leading academic in the field of self-compassion) eleven years ago when I had to take some time off from work due to a serious health problem. Whilst I was recuperating from surgery, I began applying Neff’s teachings to my own recovery. I know this assisted me in regaining my health (both physically and psychologically) and helped me to get back to the job I love more quickly. Soon after this, I began to incorporate the principles of self-compassion into the development work I was undertaking within a range of organisations and the feedback I received from clients described the approach as ‘life changing’.
So, what is self-compassion? Neff describes self-compassion as treating ourselves as we would a good friend if they were struggling in some way. Self-compassion has three core components:
- Self-kindness – this means taking a warm and caring approach to ourselves when we are having a hard time as opposed to being harshly critical of ourselves when we make a mistake or feel inadequate in some way. When we can speak to ourselves kindly, instead of berating ourselves for being human, then we are more likely to achieve our aims than when we are harshly self-critical.
- Common Humanity – when we are struggling, we often think that we are the only ones to experience this difficulty or have these feelings or concerns. However, the fact of the matter is that, as human beings, we all suffer and struggle at times. Life is difficult for all of us some of the time and none of us are immune to having to negotiate the trials and tribulations that can come our way. Our common humanity reminds us that we are never alone. There will be millions of people around the world experiencing a similar difficulty or having similar feelings to us, right in this moment, even if we don’t know them personally.
- Mindfulness – this means recognising how we are thinking and feeling in the present moment without judgement. Allowing our feelings (whatever they are- even the more difficult ones!) and thoughts to be present and accepting them. We do this by bringing our awareness to a repetitive action we naturally perform, such as breathing or walking, so that we can kindly observe our thoughts and feelings as they arise. Practising mindfulness encourages us to take a receptive and balanced view so that we do not over-identify with our more difficult feelings and, as a result, automatically react or overreact.
By learning the tools and techniques to cultivate these three elements into our lives, we have at our disposal the resources to endure our struggles, knowing that these are a normal part of life. We can develop an inner strength to deal with adversity and we can bounce back more quickly and fully.
When all three core components are delivered together the international peer-reviewed evidence shows an increase in resilience, emotional intelligence, happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, gratitude and compassion for others. The research also shows a decrease in stress, depression, anxiety, fear of failure, compassion fatigue and burnout.
The evidence also indicates that self-compassion is completely trainable. The evaluations I receive from my work have encouraged me to continue to develop innovative methods to develop self-compassion with staff and leaders. The programmes I provide for leaders and staff are empirically tested and have shown to significantly improve mental wellbeing and reduce stress and burnout. The brief, online self-guided Self-Compassion at Work Programme, available to staff at any level, provides a full grounding in both the theory and practice of this ground-breaking approach. This programme has been commissioned by many organisations as part of their health and wellbeing strategy and, to date, has been accessed by thousands of staff members from across the UK.
My Top Tips for Self-Compassion are:
- Accept that you will never be perfect – we are all just doing the best we can with the cards we have been dealt and, for the most part, succeeding!
- Make a list of three things that have gone well each day and one thing that could have gone better, without dwelling on this, just taking the learning you can. Consider one thing that you are grateful for each day – try to choose different things every day.
- Make no comparisons of yourself to others – we are all on our own journeys and paths, with our own unique set of talents and attributes that we bring with us to every situation.
- Link focusing on your breathing for one minute with daily tasks such as brushing your teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil.
- Look after the basics – Eating healthily and regularly, hydrating enough, giving ourselves the amount of sleep we need, exercising in ways we enjoy – particularly in nature, planning some relaxation time each day, engaging in an activity we enjoy, taking time each week to reflect on what we have achieved, spending and making time to maintain our relationships with people we care for and who care for us.
- Look for opportunities to form connections with others who share your interests or challenges, both in your professional and personal life.
- Appreciate all the good in our lives – have gratitude for our good health (or the parts of us that do work well), the health and wellbeing of our loved ones, a special moment like showing kindness to ourselves or others, appreciate a good thing that happened each day like glimpsing the sunset or sharing a joke with a friend.
- Start each day with the intention to be compassionate to yourself. Put this intention on a post it note and stick this somewhere that you will see it each morning before you start your day – this is great way to remind ourselves of our good intentions.
Top Reflective questions to cultivate self-compassion: You can ask yourself these questions as you get ready or commute to work:
- How can I show myself kindness today in amongst the tasks I have to complete?
- How can I build and develop my connections with others I come into contact with today?
- How can I be mindful towards how I am feeling today – what space do I need to give myself to focus on my breathing for one minute and accept my thoughts and feelings without judgement?
- When something comes along that feels difficult ask yourself – How can I value myself, as well as others, in this situation?