How self-compassion strengthens resilience

July 29, 2020 - 13 min read

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Meeting self-judgment head on

Why we trend negative

“Hi self, I’d like you to meet compassion”

There are three components of self-compassion:

Putting it into practice

Because it just feels better

This is the fourth post in our six-part series on resilience, where we examine the key drivers that provide a recipe for building resilience for yourself, your teams, and your workforce. Each post will feature real-world stories of human resilience.

“I blew it.” “Why did I say that?” “That was a complete failure.” “What must people think about me now?”

Sound familiar? When it comes to our own performance, we are often extra hard … on ourselves. Whether it’s feeling like we bombed a work presentation or judging our ability to manage the triple duty of worker, parent, and teacher during a pandemic, the inner critic is alive and well. But, why is it so easy to be self-critical, is there any value to self-compassion or is it just woo-woo, and — if there is value — is self-compassion something we can get better at?

These are all questions I’ve been thinking a lot about during the past few months, especially as I’ve struggled with homeschooling my two daughters, raising a newborn, and continuing to have an impact at work. Believe me when I say, the Olympic judging panel in my head has been in full force. And I’m not alone.

Meeting self-judgment head on

In a recent conversation with my colleague, Derek, I saw firsthand how prevalent self-judgment is, and how unkind and unflattering much of that negative inner talk can be. But I also found hope in his aha moment when he realized there was a different way to view his perceived stumbles. 

Derek is a bright young professional with unlimited potential. He pushes himself hard to excel and that focus has generally paid off. Like it has for many of us, the current environment has only intensified the pressure he feels to perform. The economic fallout from COVID-19 has taken a toll on businesses and on individuals — increasing the feeling that we need to do everything we can to make a positive impact. But this can lead to heightened self-awareness that can even turn into self-criticism. While it can feel like that’s a necessary ingredient to fuel motivation and performance, this added pressure can actually undermine our motivation.    

Derek’s experience offers takeaways we can all benefit from. Opportunities to learn how to transform self-judgment into self-compassion. A chance to discover the tangible benefits — in work and life — of finding healthier approaches to dealing with disappointments and difficult times.

Here’s what happened… 

A few weeks ago, Derek was giving a client presentation virtually. And it wasn’t going as he had planned. “I started feeling myself stumble,” Derek shared. “I was mixing up my words, couldn’t focus, and was already beating myself up — in real-time — over what an awful job I felt I was doing.”

As many of us know too well, that negative self-talk doesn’t do us any good. Instead of improving his performance, Derek felt thrown off course and started going into a downward spiral. And that negative self-talk was just getting started when the meeting was over.

“After the meeting,” Derek continued, “I became hyper-focused on everything I did wrong. I worried about how people perceived me. I saw my imperfect presentation as a sign of failure and — by extension — that my clients must see me in the same way. I felt awful.”

If you’re like me, you can totally relate. At times like these, all you want is a moment to reset, but it just doesn’t happen magically, does it? So the ball just keeps rolling downhill as the self-criticism intensifies.

“I not only spent the entire weekend obsessing over it,” Derek admitted, “but I carried into the next week. It was impacting my confidence, and — if I’m being honest — my productivity.”  

Why we trend negative

Isn’t it fascinating how our self-interpretation — whether it be our presentation skills or parenting and everything in between — can instantly trend to the negative? How easy it is to focus on the one or two bumps rather than all the good stuff in between?

It turns out that we’re all programmed that way—a phenomenon referred to as negativity bias. This means that even when the intensity is the same, things that are more negative (e.g., events, thoughts, emotions) have a bigger impact on us than positive or neutral things do. 

In Derek’s case, I’ve personally seen him present to clients...and he’s really great. Yet he comes away from meetings feeling bad about himself and his abilities, and these feelings impact his self-image and work long after the meeting is over. 

“My BetterUp coach helped me realize that before meetings I become hyper-focused on rehearsing a perfect presentation and that creates pressure to execute flawlessly. He helped me realize that perfect was getting in the way of my success. I needed to change my mindset before going into meetings.”

Working with his coach, Derek developed a new routine leading up to a presentation. His routine shifted from obsessively rehearsing every last word to focusing on the expertise and value he could bring to his customers, something he naturally felt confident about. Derek also incorporated positive self-talk and mindfulness breathing to control the performance anxiety leading up to important meetings.

“Hi self, I’d like you to meet compassion”

What if there was another way? What if, like Derek, we could shift away from unrealistic expectations of perfection into a mindset where everything was viewed as an opportunity to grow; where our self-talk was kind and positive and focused on the overall experience and outcome rather than mistakes? Enter self-compassion.

Self-compassion is how compassionate we are with ourselves. It requires treating ourselves with empathy and kindness. Self-compassion allows us to respond to ourselves the way we would respond to a friend or loved one. We often judge and say things to ourselves that we would never think of saying to a loved one. Building self-compassion increases resilience because it helps us shift from shame and fear to a more positive state that allows us to move forward.

There are three components of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness. Self-kindness is not demanding perfection from ourselves. This is the component that Derek was wrestling with. It is accepting that it is normal to be imperfect, rather than blaming or criticizing ourselves for not measuring up. 
  2. Common humanity. Self-criticism can cause a downward spiral that leads to isolation and withdrawal. In contrast, through the lens of common humanity, we remember that everyone suffers disappointment and failure, which creates an opportunity for connection
  3. Mindfulness. Mindfulness starts with noticing that we’re having a difficult experience and turning toward it without getting carried away with it. It’s achieving that “zen-like” state where when those self-critical thoughts rear their ugly heads, you can acknowledge them without attachment. “That’s just my perfectionism. I’ve dealt with those before, they will pass.”  

In addition to being a key driver of resilience, more than 1,000 research studies have linked self-compassion to reduced psychopathology and enhanced well-being. This is because greater self-compassion leads to powerful adaptive emotional functioning. In other words, it makes us less afraid to take risks and more likely to see setbacks and failures as learning opportunities. 

Just as Derek experienced, one-to-one coaching from BetterUp has been shown to increase self-compassion by 72%. In fact, you can think of building your self-compassion as cultivating your inner coach. How would your coach respond when you’re having a tough time? Your coach would accept you unconditionally, trust that you have the resources needed to solve your own challenges, have your long-term best interests at heart, challenge you when necessary, cheer you on, and motivate you to get out of your own way.

Putting it into practice

Dr. Kristin Neff is among the foremost experts in self-compassion. This is an exercise from the Mindful Self Compassion training program designed by Kristin and Christopher Germer.

  1. Think of a behavior that you’d like to change, something you often beat yourself up about. Choose a behavior that is unhelpful to you and that is potentially changeable.
  2. Get acquainted with your inner critic. Notice what you typically say to yourself when engaging in this behavior. What words and tone does the self-critic use?
  3. What might your inner coach (or compassionate figure, such as a good friend) say to you instead?
  4. Encourage yourself or write yourself a letter in the voice of your inner compassionate coach, freely and spontaneously addressing the behavior. What emerges from the deep feeling and wish “I don’t want you to keep hurting and am here to support you?” Or “I love you and don’t want you to suffer”? Or “I care deeply about you and that’s why I’d like to help you make a change”?

I frequently tap into Dr. Neff’s website that offers free training, practices, and resources. I also recommend this quick and fun lesson on Treating Yourself Like a Friend from BetterUp Studios.

Because it just feels better

As I was writing this post, I heard from Derek. He’d just wrapped up another client meeting. “I felt like I crushed it,” he said happily. “I saw any imperfections as room to grow next time. And it feels so much better! It’s such a relief to put my energy into what really matters, rather than just beating myself up over so many little things.”  Yea, Derek!

Practicing self-compassion may not be second nature to you (and you’re not alone if it doesn’t). But with the right focus and guidance (hint, hint: use those tips above), you can quiet that inner critic and begin not only being nicer to yourself but also turning those things that would’ve flipped you upside down into opportunities to celebrate your humanity and thrive.

Read Part 1 - Recipe for Resilience, Part 2 - Cognitive Agility, and Part 3 - Emotional Regulation from this blog series.  

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Published July 29, 2020

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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