For the type-A personalities, the perfectionists, and the people pleasers, it’s easy to get overloaded and, in turn, get in over our heads. Then, when we inevitably make a mistake or things don’t work out the way we’d hoped, we beat ourselves up. You feel miserable and may end up taking it out on other people, which only fuels more distress. Sound familiar?
This is what Dan Harris, a former ABC News anchor and co-founder of the Ten Percent Happier meditation app, calls the ‘toilet vortex’ in his popular TED Talk. It’s a self-destructive path many of us have taken, but it’s not our only option. Self-compassion (or the ‘cheesy upward spiral’ as he calls it) is one of the most important skills to learn and hone.
When you face a career setback — such as receiving a rejection letter, losing out on a promotion, figuring out how to balance parenting and working, or missing a deadline — self-criticism leads to extra stress, anxiety, and even depression. On the contrary, showing yourself compassion has been proven to help individuals develop resilience and stay motivated.
“With self-compassion, we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience,” said Dr. Kristina Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power Of Being Kind To Yourself.” “This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain, while providing the optimal conditions for growth and transformation.”
Unfortunately, many of us, like Harris, have been conditioned (perhaps inadvertently) to write off things like meditation, self-compassion, and self-love as foolish, embarrassing, and over-the-top ideas we’d prefer not to be associated with. Our society even pokes fun at these ideas. There’s a reason why Saturday Night Live’s “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley” exists.
Harris admits in his TED Talk that he was once among those who dismissed meditation as ridiculous. “I was raised by a pair of atheist scientists,” he said. “I’m a fidgety, skeptical guy. And that kind of led me to unfairly lump meditation in with aura readings, vision boards, and dolphin healing. But the practice really helped me with my anxiety and depression.”
The good news is that self-compassion doesn’t have to involve climbing a mountain and sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed. Harris recommends starting by merely talking to yourself the way you would a good friend, and Neff has great instructions for an exercise to put this simple, yet effective tool to practice.
Let’s look at an example. In a job interview, you are so nervous that you forget what a common acronym stands for, and you have to ask the interviewer to clarify their question. Afterward, you ruminate about how stupid you feel. However, what if a friend of yours had done this? You’d probably tell them something like, “Is it embarrassing? Sure! But we all forget things from time to time. Don’t worry about it.”
The above phrase illustrates one of three elements of self-compassion — common humanity. It’s recognizing that suffering is not something that happens to you, alone. It’s part of the shared human experience. The other elements are self-kindness (vs. self-judgment) and mindfulness (vs. overidentifying).
Achieving all these elements will take time, but Neff and Harris say it’s worth the effort. People who show themselves compassion are better equipped to handle their setbacks, bounce back faster, and ultimately boost their performance in both work and life.
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