Breaking Barriers: Self-Compassion in the Workplace

BL00 - Breaking Barriers Compassion in the Workplace-High-Quality

By Katie Morales, the Mindful Leader Team

It’s often difficult to navigate the challenges and pressures that come with being employed. A growing body of evidence suggests psychological safety at work supports a variety of important areas, including connection and collaboration, creativity, job satisfaction, and productivity. Compassion is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in the workplace to help foster emotional well-being.

For a deeper look at what general self-compassion is, please read Kristin Neff’s blog post about the 5 Myths about Self-Compassion. In this article we will specifically explore how these myths fit into the workplace.

Myth #1: Self-compassion is a form of self-pity

Self-compassion is not an opportunity to complain about all the bad things in your life. Instead, having self-compassion gives you the space to acknowledge difficult emotions or experiences with kindness; it’s allowing whatever you may be feeling or experiencing at any moment to be completely okay.

Self-compassion can help you find peace during more difficult work situations. In the workplace, self-compassion could look like:

  1. Realizing you missed an important project deadline, while also acknowledging that mistakes happen and this doesn’t represent who you are in totality. 
  2. Acknowledging you feel disappointed after you didn’t get the raise you were hoping for, and giving yourself space to feel these emotions. 
  3. Recognizing you made a mistake on a project, and it will require significantly more work to fix it. As you rectify the mistake, you kindly remind yourself that you’re grateful that you noticed this mistake so that you didn’t deliver a bad product. 

Self-compassion is about reacting to difficult situations in healthy ways. We can’t control our emotions, but we can control how we approach them and think about them. For example, using similar examples from above, let’s explore what compassion in the workplace is NOT:

  1. Beating yourself up for accidentally missing a meeting, thinking thoughts such as “I’m the worst employee here.” 
  2. Comparing yourself to others, wondering why you’re such a failure for not getting a raise.
  3. Cursing yourself each time you notice how long it’s taking to fix your mistake, thinking thoughts like “How could I be so stupid?” or “I can’t do anything right.” 

Myth #2: Self-compassion means weakness 

Compassion and weakness are not synonymous, instead they’re quite the opposite. There is research to support that having self-compassion increases emotional resilience and helps people cope with difficult situations. In fact, self-compassion can help break up a negative thought pattern you may be having, which in turn can boost emotional wellness.

Self-compassion in the workplace can help build more resilient employees. Let’s add on to the first example from above and demonstrate how compassion does not mean weakness:

Realizing you missed an important project deadline, while also acknowledging that mistakes happen and this doesn’t represent who you are in totality.

In this situation, people may experience anything from embarrassment to anxiety or frustration. Giving yourself space to feel these negative emotions in the moment can help you identify when your thoughts turn sour. Kindly being aware of how you’re feeling can help change thoughts of “I’m not good enough for this job” into “You’re scared to make a bad impression, but one meeting won’t dictate who you are as an employee. You have a lot on your plate and you’re doing the best you can with what you have right now.” 

Did you notice anything? In this example, I go from using a 1st person perspective to using a 2nd person perspective when speaking more compassionately to oneself. When I wrote this article, I was unaware of this switch until a colleague of mine pointed it out. Have you ever noticed that it’s much easier to be compassionate to others, even strangers, than to yourself? Have you ever said things to yourself that you would never dare say to anyone else? You’re not alone. Self-compassion is not an easy thing to do. It requires a great deal of strength to be kind to oneself and to ignore the inner critic. Sitting in your emotions is difficult, and it’s going to be uncomfortable, but we strongly believe that it will be worth it. These simple changes can signal an avalanche of emotional resilience. It can be the difference between holding on to difficult emotions and feeling “stuck” to being able to let go and move on.  

Myth 3: Self-compassion will make me complacent.

Many people are afraid that if they don’t criticize themselves on their failures, then they’ll slip into defeatism. However, self punishment does not equate to increased motivation, productivity, or an ability to achieve goals. In fact, self punishment can be a pretty gnarly roadblock, and studies show that self-compassion is a much more effective self-motivator than punishment.

The workplace is arguably one of the most critical areas in our lives - constant evaluations for promotions, constructive criticism on projects, and many other opportunities to be assessed in some capacity. It’s no wonder that we are so hard on ourselves when our environment is constantly reminding us of what we lack. Self-compassion can help boost confidence at work and build better work environments. Let’s dive a little deeper into our first example. As a reminder:

Kindly being aware of how you’re feeling about missing an important project deadline can help change thoughts of “I’m not good enough for this job” into “You have a lot on your plate and you’re doing the best you can.” 

Research shows that people who are more self-compassionate are more likely to engage in activities that promote positive change. Kindness is a much higher motivator than judgment. Thoughts of “I’m not good enough for this job” can compound the already negative emotions someone may be feeling and start a vicious cycle. This can make it more likely to notice every failure big or small, which brings about their own set of emotions, thus adding to the arsenal of negativity. Self-compassion can stop this criticism cycle before we feel stuck or burnt out and it can give us the encouragement and support to try again.

Myth 4: Self-compassion is narcissistic.

Studies have shown that narcissism (excessive admiration for oneself, and not the same as Narcissistic Personality Disorder) is at an all-time high in Western societies where people tend to derive their self-esteem by being anything but average. Calling someone average in these societies, where individualism is valued and revered, is oftentimes an affront to that person’s character. It’s a reminder that there are people who are “better” in some regard. Nevertheless, self-compassion is not judgment or the need to be better than others. Instead, self-compassion is about acknowledging that no one is perfect and to respond with kindness and acceptance when forced to address areas that we lack.

It can be easy to constantly judge ourselves in the workplace - as we mentioned above it’s one of the most critical areas in our lives today - but that doesn’t mean this has to affect how we view ourselves. Take the example we’ve been working with: You missed an important project deadline. Add on to this example with an observation that none of your colleagues have done this before. There are many reactions that can play out, so let's look at a few responses that could play out.

Judgmental response: 

You see your colleagues as “better employees” than you because they never missed a deadline. This makes you feel bad about yourself, maybe a few uncomfortable emotions start to simmer. You could react to this by justifying why you’re a better employee than they are - that you work longer hours and have more clients than they do. This response makes you feel better in the short term, but when you start to notice they also put in long hours and overtime they have as many clients as you, your self-esteem takes another hit. You need to be “better” in some way in order to feel good about yourself. What started off as missing one meeting now has you questioning your work ethic and success.

Self-compassionate response:

You acknowledge that you feel embarrassed for missing an important deadline, and you also notice that you feel a bit inferior to your colleagues for this error. You then remind yourself that mistakes happen and this was the first time anything like this has happened. You are not perfect, and you’ll set a reminder on your phone to help prevent this from happening again. 

Alternate self-compassionate response:

Maybe that seems too simple. What if at first you think “Man, I’ve been messing up a lot and it’s only Tuesday.” This is when curiosity can be paired with self-compassion to form a powerful duo. If you’re curious as to why you keep “messing things up” you might (kindly) realize it’s been hard to focus lately. Armed with this insight, you might behave in ways that promote focus, like getting rid of any distractions, setting phone reminders to keep you on track, or making a to-do list that prioritizes the most important tasks first. 

Judgmental responses rely on external forces to make someone feel good, leaving you at the mercy of life’s grenade. Self-compassion opens the door for kindness, arguably when we need it most. Self-compassion can be the difference between unnecessary judgement and the support we need to make long-lasting and positive changes in our work life.

Myth 5: Self-compassion is selfish.

It’s a common misconception that we must martyr ourselves in order to care for others properly. Ironically, though, it’s quite difficult to take care of others if you aren’t taking care of yourself. This is similar to the workplace - it's difficult to be a good employee if you aren’t taking care of yourself, and it’s okay to take care of yourself first.

For example, say you have an important project deadline coming up in the next week and the previous week you’ve spent every evening working late to prepare for it. You wake up early to get a head start on the day’s work, and the stress is affecting your quality of sleep. You’re perpetually tired, and have been eating out a lot too because you don’t have the time to cook. Maybe you think you need to push through this week too and “take one for the team” to get a high quality result. However, if you’re not properly taking care of yourself - adequate sleep, healthy meals, downtime - your work may be affected without you even realizing it. 

I’ll share a personal example of my own. My dog became paralyzed after experiencing a herniated disc. After a traumatic week and a costly surgery, my dog was on the mend. Any time I wasn’t using taking care of my dog, I spent trying to keep up at work. I answered emails at odd hours, I worked through lunch (oftentimes forgetting to eat), and I seemed to keep up for the most part. But I still felt behind and slow. 

At first I thought self-compassion was telling myself “You’ve been through a lot, anyone would have trouble keeping up in your situation.” And I was right, but I still continued to martyr myself. I told myself that a good employee gets these things done in X amount of time and can handle a certain workload. I gave myself unrealistic expectations for my current situations and my work and mental wellness took a hit. It wasn’t until I took some time off to give myself space to be compassionately curious with myself and the situation, that I realized I had extreme difficulty concentrating. Minor distractions I could normally ignore were now glaringly obnoxious and they would steal my attention. As a result, I’d forget to do certain tasks and this would lead to minor mistakes throughout the workweek. Armed with self-compassion (though not easy) and the observation that my thoughts were running wild, I was able to make decisions throughout the day that promoted focused attention on my work. It wasn’t perfect, and I still got distracted, but I kindly brought my attention back to the task at hand when I did.  

Had I not had compassion for myself, I could have gone down the rabbit hole of “I’m not good at my job” or “I’m a fraud and my boss is finally going to notice.” These are actual thoughts I had, but I tried not to dwell on them. Instead, I gave myself space to be and rephrased my inner dialogue to be a kinder version of myself. As a result, I was able to be curious and employ strategies that helped focus my attention and decrease my chances of making mistakes. 

Final thoughts

Self-compassion is a lifelong pursuit. It takes practice, and it’s not something that happens overnight. My own personal story highlights how self-compassion can take on many forms in the workplace, and they may not always be obvious, easy, or simple. Nevertheless, self-compassion gives you an opportunity to change the story while being as you are. Self-compassion is an invaluable skill for any job position, because it can help employees (and the people around them) be better versions of themselves. 

How do you show yourself self-compassion? Please share in comments!

Katie Morales helps run Mindful Leader's Certified Workplace Mindfulness Facilitator training program.

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Fantastic article - I personally struggle with your second point, that self-compassion is weakness. I appreciate your perspective and tips! 

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Katie Morales

Thanks for your comment, Sara! I'm glad to hear you found the article helpful. Best of luck to you on your self-compassion journey :)

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