On self-compassion

A couple of months ago, I moved out of my talent & leadership consulting job (which I thoroughly enjoyed), to pursue my passion in supporting people (specifically employees & leaders in organizations) to cultivate ‘well-being’ into their lives. As I write this piece, I have a lot of exciting things happening – my business model coming to life, a website, exciting meetings, partnerships etc.


Given this vision of making well-being ‘a need to have’ across organizations, I’ve been doing a lot of research on stress and stressors (within and outside of the workplace). I realized that the one mistake a lot of us tend to make is to describe our stressors as stress. However, stress is really our response to stressors and not the stressor in itself.


In this article, I want to bring to life, one internal state or stressor, which if recognized, and dealt with, can drastically reduce stress (improve mental health) – self compassion.


I’m now engaged in some one to one wellness coaching, as well as making changes to my life style, to take care of my own well-being. Through this, I’ve discovered an often ignored ‘internal stressor’ – SELF COMPASSION. Selfcompassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering.


I’ve heard successful people say “I did this, but it’s just not enough… I can do better” I’ve heard intelligent working millennials say “I should’ve acquired XYZ qualification earlier” and most of all I’ve struggled, and am still struggling with letting myself make mistakes, and take some extra time to build this new venture. At least once a day, I have thoughts of “but why did I think I can make it work?”, “Is this a stupid idea?”, “Do I REALLY have it in me?” etc. etc.


Perhaps, our society’s emphasis on achievement, self-esteem, power and fame, lie at the heart of this unnecessary, and counterproductive suffering.


This made me realize that of course all of us – right from young students to CXOs/CEOs have multiple stressors in our ecosystem, however, what may be compounding the impact of these stressors is very often a complete LACK of self-compassion!


Below are two unconscious/sub-conscious beliefs about self-compassion, that may be keeping us from making it integral to our lives:


  1. Self-compassion will make me complacent and slow


The truth is that self-compassion is different from procrastination or complacency. Dr. Kristin Neff, pioneer researcher in self-compassion explains that self-compassion is not a way of avoiding goals or becoming self-indulgent. It is important to note that self-compassion doesn’t mean giving yourself whatever you want, it is concerned with the alleviation of suffering. In fact, often, self-compassion helps us develop care for ourselves, such that we develop the intrinsic motivation to do the things that will benefit us in the long-term.


Dr. Neff explains that initially self-compassion can be painful, because it involves making life changes, that may not seem aligned to your ‘self-image’. I resonate with this so much – in the last 2 months, I’ve begun to spend much more time/energy focusing on my health, on volunteering and service and investing in relationships. For someone who has been a work-a-holic, this has been both tough and rewarding. Often, when spending the extra 20 minutes on my meditation, or at the Gym, I worry – am I being complacent? Don’t I have so much work to finish? However, it is at these moments, when my vision of well-being and self-compassion kick in.


My greatest learning is that self-compassion is so much more powerful than self-esteem. In fact, practising self-compassion has helped me feel calm, centered, and become more productive. YES, despite spending fewer hours working, I am more productive.


A workplace, where self-compassion is valued can actually be one where individuals feel a high sense of psychological safety, and will collaborate with each other, to establish good relationships almost effortlessly!


  1. Self-compassion will not allow me to make the improvements/changes I need to make in order to succeed


Each time, I practice self-compassion or suggest this practice to someone, I fear – “does this mean I won’t act on criticism?” … “does this also mean I don’t make changes if I make mistakes?” or “How can I succeed without being self-critical?” – so many of us associate being self-critical with being successful. We are deeply attached to self-criticism, and at some level, we probably think the pain is helpful. To the extent that self-criticism does work as a motivator, it’s because we are driven by the desire to avoid self-judgement when we fail. However, with self-compassion, we strive to achieve for a very different reason – because we care. And because self-compassion gives us the safety needed to acknowledge our weaknesses, we’ll be in a better position to change them for the better. Dr. Neff also explains, that with self-compassion we remain upbeat and energetic, by avoiding the drain that may be caused by self-defeating thoughts.


Imagine a work place, where individuals and leaders were actually to practice self-compassion. Not only would it lead to better self-management, and lower stress levels, but also, less fear of failure, as a consequence of which, they may be more openness to innovation and new ideas!


This is all grounded in science and the physiology of our body – When we are harsh on ourselves, this activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and elevates the stress hormones like cortisol in our bloodstream, which has long-term implications on our health and happiness. Self compassion, on the other hand, triggers the mammalian care-giving system, and hormones of affiliation, such as oxytocin. Oxytocin is associated with a feeling of high well-being, which allows us to hold the truth without attacking ourselves.


So, this mental health awareness week, let’s be aware of ourselves, and whether we are truly self-compassionate. Let’s ask ourselves “if my best friend or family member was going through my situation, what would I do or say?”


Let’s create happy and more productive work environments for our teams and colleagues by helping them cultivate self-compassion. It may seem challenging initially, but in the long-run, you will emerge a winner J


  • Nikita Singh





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