The Holiday season is by far a peak time for feeling overwhelmed by competing commitments and trying to meet unachievable expectations. At work, you may be trying to meet your target hours, close your deals, write your I Love Me Memo, ensure you have the right gifts and Holiday cards for clients, and attend Holiday parties and work functions. At home, you may be trying to connect with friends and family, buy just the right presents for everyone on your list, make your house beautiful, cook amazing food, and make the Holidays “magical” for your children.
Even the family Holiday card takes so much longer than expected – taking the picture, finding the card, compiling the addresses – phew! At the same time we want to be “joyful” because, after all, isn’t that what the Holidays are about. REALLY!
The gift I want to share with you this Holiday season is self-compassion.
Initially I was slightly hesitant about this topic because it felt a little “soft.” Coming from me (trainer of soft skills) – that means a lot. But now I am a complete convert. As I have learned more about the difference between self-esteem and self- compassion and come to know my own inner critic a little better, I have become convinced that learning to be self-compassionate is an essential practice for our well-being. (And, if you have children for your children’s well-being, too.)
Self-compassion, which has longstanding roots in Buddhism, is not a new concept per se. However, Dr. Kristin Neff’s groundbreaking research on the topic demonstrates its essential applications in the hectic and overloaded times in which we live. She begins by making the distinction between self-compassion and self-esteem.
We Must Accept That We Are Not Perfect
In a nutshell, self-compassion is a way to relate to ourselves kindly. Self-compassion is not about judging ourselves positively or a form of self-indulgence. The foundation of self-compassion is simply accepting that we are not perfect, that we all have periods of ups and downs, we all fail and we all suffer. This is part of what it means to be human.
Self-compassion provides a realistic view of the world and our place in it. Rather than criticize ourselves for being human, we can choose to be nice to ourselves — as nice as we might be to someone we love who is struggling. Self-compassion also empowers us to move forward in the face of failure. When we are able to accept failure as a fact of life, we are much more likely to be able to learn from it and grow.
Self-esteem, on the other hand, often requires constant, or at least periodic, success. The way many of us have built our self-esteem is by achieving and receiving positive feedback. The problem with this is that for many of us, in order to feel good about ourselves, we need to feel successful all the time!
Making matters worse, we often feel successful based on other people’s assessments of us. This is both unrealistic and fragile, given that who knows what is impacting other people’s assessment of us. Self-esteem often relies on simplistic labels – good v. bad, smart v. dumb, high-performing v. incompetent – and requires us to feel (and be!) better than everyone else. Worse yet, self-esteem plummets during failure, meaning that it abandons us when we need it most.
The inner voice of self-esteem is the self-critic – relentless, unforgiving, and in an endless pursuit of perfection. This makes for a bumpy ride. An inner voice of self-compassion is your best friend – kind, supportive, and in an endless pursuit of opportunities to learn and improve.
If this sounds too “soft” to be truly effective, remember that a true best friend is no pushover. She calls it as she sees it and can bring out the “tough love” when necessary. But she remains your friend through thick and thin, ensuring a much smoother ride.
How Can We Be More Self-Compassionate?
How can we be become more self-compassionate? First, we need to accept imperfection. Many lawyers have become extraordinarily successful by striving for perfection – great grades in school, prestigious college and law school, impressive summer associate/clerkships, and prestigious law firm jobs. While we all know intellectually that perfection does not exist, many of us pursue it relentlessly, resulting in anxiety, stress and often depression.
Failure is a fact of life. To thrive, we must not only accept failure, we must learn to embrace it. I have spoken with enough women lawyers one-on-one to know how hard this is for many. I also recognize that the law firm environment does not acknowledge or allow for failure. I often hear “We cannot make a mistake.”
But the reality is, people make mistakes all the time – it’s part of our common humanity. Moreover, when we don’t acknowledge mistakes or feel compelled to hide failure, we increase stress and miss out on key growth opportunities.
If You’re Hard on Yourself, You’ll Succeed, Right? The Opposite is True
We also need to tame our inner critics. Many people believe that if they are really hard on themselves, they will become more successful. But the research actually shows the exact opposite. By leading our reptilian brain to think that we are under attack, self-criticism causes us to release stress hormones. This can provide a momentary burst of energy, but ultimately causes the body to shut down (e.g., lack of focus, depression, illness). Even the most perfectionist lawyer can agree that this is hardly a motivational state!
Self-compassion, on the other hand, taps into our mammalian brain, which releases “feel good” hormones such as oxytocin. This creates a resilient mental state that enables us to do our best – even in the most challenging times.
Finally, we need to connect to our common humanity. Everyone has ups and downs – your senior partners, your clients, the “perfect” colleague down the hall, the picture-perfect Facebook family, everyone! When we are down, it is easy to isolate ourselves and feel like we are the only ones going through any given situation. This makes it even worse! In isolation, the only voice we hear is our self-critic. Thinking “I am alone” and “There is something wrong with me” leads to wallowing, which is not only demotivating, but also can lead to more mistakes and obvious “imperfection” – a vicious cycle.
On the other hand, understanding that we are in the company of many other people who struggle is both comforting and a key part of moving forward.
Self-Compassion is Not Pollyannaish
Self-compassion is not a Pollyannaish mindset. On the contrary, being understanding and kind to yourself opens you up to greater mental well-being, increased motivation and accountability, and improved interpersonal relationships.
The Holiday season often is a time of struggle for many people – both personally and professionally. But when your negative inner voice pipes up, notice it, then ask your yourself what it would be like to be kind to yourself. Remember that many of your peers also are struggling. There is nothing wrong with you. Then tell yourself what you would tell your best friend. That is the true gift of self-compassion.
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