For others, we often have empathy, as well as tenderness and understanding. For ourselves, we’d rather not do it at all or only occasionally. Yet the point is to be good to ourselves, and it has nothing to do with selfishness. By giving ourselves attention and being gentle with ourselves, we strengthen ourselves psychologically.
Those eyes say it all. I see in them a mixture of puzzlement, some sarcasm, and at the very least, a sense that what I’m talking about is somehow strange after all. Deep down, I know they believe me, but on the surface they still often cling to old beliefs at all costs, illustrated by rolling their eyes, sighing and questioning, or total silence.
This is what happens when I talk about self-compassion in a business context. It’s a concept rarely discussed in homes, especially in previous generations. Yes, you can have it, but tenderness, forbearance, and gentleness for yourself, rather not.
Thus, the upbringing at home did not promise to strengthen this ability. Then, gradually, this deficit was compounded by our school and work experiences, which also did not give us the space to develop self-compassion.
This is where we begin to believe that being our own friend to ourselves (which is how Dr. Kristin Neff of the University of Austin defines self-compassion) is out of place, to say the least, and some of us even call it selfishness.
The concept of empathy is not more popular at all, although there is currently a trend of change in that direction. Nevertheless, empathy has a hard time breaking through and becoming part of an organization’s culture, let alone self-compassion.
As for others, so for yourself.
For the record, empathy is something we give to others and receive from others. It’s a combination of being non-judgmental, being able to “step into someone else’s shoes,” understanding emotions, and showing that understanding (this is the definition used by Dr. Brene Brown of the University of Houston).
Self-compassion, on the other hand, is very simply something similar, but the differentiating variable is the source. Empathy is given to us by others, and self-compassion is something we can give to ourselves 24 hours a day. It is a combination of gentleness, attentiveness, and the feeling that we are not the only ones experiencing or dealing with something.
Many people may be surprised to learn from Dr. Kristin Neff’s research (1) that how we relate to ourselves has an impact on virtually everything. Talking to ourselves in a dry, harsh, or angry way is not pleasant, and it does us and others no good, because the less affection we have for ourselves, the less affection we have for those around us.
These aforementioned lost eyes of people in various organizations stem from a false belief that, sown far back in time, is today yielding an abundant harvest. We have come to believe that being one’s friend is selfish.
We have also come to believe that with this attitude, we will get nowhere and achieve nothing, because we are still convinced that in order to “achieve something,” one must have “hard four letters” or elbows or a back. Not a word about the heart. The engine of these thoughts is, as always, fear.
Fear of various things: that someone will screw me over, or that there won’t be enough for everyone, or that they will take advantage of me, etc. In many homes, we were told not to be nave, not to trust people, “and if you want to get somewhere, you have to be tough, not soft.
And we have become so hardened to all this that we treat soft self-compassion as the strangest intruder. And yet, soft does not mean weak. It doesn’t mean frail. It doesn’t mean shapeless. It means flexible, resilient, without sharp edges. And who wouldn’t want to have something that will be a nice, good support for the rest of their lives, for better or for worse?
Your inner friend
Consider how many situations we would describe as difficult required such soft, flexible, and safe support. Tender, honest, and gentle. Whether it was a professional challenge or a private one, in every sphere it is easier to achieve tasks, goals, or challenges with a best friend by your side, in this case, your inner friend.
The past few years have been a series of challenges, an avalanche of surprises, a list of changes, and a storm of chaos. Each of us has paid for it in some way. Sometimes the currency was health, sometimes relationships or work. And living through such a time without a helping inner hand was much more difficult.
High expectations, suppressed emotions, uncertainty, loneliness, or an overabundance of stimuli cause many of us to fret more. We get into conflicts faster and with more ease. We also lose patience more quickly (2). And by not being tender with ourselves, even when we made a mistake, we were much slower to regain our composure. It took us a long time to reflect on the sentences we regretted using, the behaviors we’d like to change, and the emotions that got the best of us.
I dare say that sensitivity to ourselves was, is, and will be one of the key competences of the future. Competences without which the future looks dry and sad. Cutting ourselves off from ourselves, and consequently from others, deprives us of one of the few things in which we will not be replaced by robots.
Failure to develop this kind of honest, friendly affection not only damages your relationship with yourself but, in the long run, your relationships with others as well.
Speaking of black scenarios, here’s one that many people use as an argument against cultivating self-compassion. I hear it at least once every five meetings. It goes something like this: “Kate, but if I start being so forgiving to myself, I won’t get very far. Or, “But if I’m so hard on myself, I’ll lose the strength I need to achieve my goals.” And I, after hearing this, respect that perspective. But I strongly invite you to another one, which I will describe this way:
If I have a big challenge ahead of me, another pandemic or move, a layoff, a discussion with the unions, mediation, divorce, accident, company bankruptcy, with whom will it be easier to move through the anxiety, uncertainty, confusion, and tornado of emotions belonging to these events? “
With whom are you more likely to go on a journey into the unknown? Will you open a business?
Will you apply for a new position? Take on a new project? Travel abroad? Will you be testing new ideas that have never been tested before?
With someone who is affectionate towards you or someone who is strict and critical?
You can ride on harshness, demands, criticism, and high expectations a bit in life. But not for long, because it’s a polluted fuel that, while it offers “fast and far,” its byproducts will squeeze the last juices out of us until we eventually seize the engine and get nowhere.
The costs to be borne will, sooner or later, be enormous. The body can’t handle the rigor and pace. The relationship will not be able to withstand the constant “highs.” Emotions will aim for one kind of extreme: anxiety, anger, frustration, anger, fear. This can simply not be sustained in a healthy way. This is why it is so important to practice the competence of being your own friend.
This can be trained into you.
The good news is that this is a skill like dancing, drawing, cooking, walking, driving, or cycling. It can simply be learned, developed, and strengthened. You just have to want it and believe that it can be done. And once we learn it, others will learn it from us. I especially address this paragraph to parents, teachers, and caregivers.
There is nothing more valuable that we can give to the next generation than the ability to support ourselves in difficult times, of which every generation always has some. Difficulties vary between generations, of course, but each generation does its homework.
How do we develop tenderness towards ourselves?
The answer is simple and difficult at the same time, because it is done gradually, step by step. To be more precise, from now on, as soon as you finish reading this text, for the next 24 hours, speak to yourself the way your best friend or best girlfriend would speak to you.
If you’re procrastinating on a report, facing a deadline, and sitting up until 4 a.m. trying to put together the final slides, it’s not much help to blame yourself. Saying to yourself over and over again, “You should have done this sooner rather than leaving it for last” will not help.
This voice is harsh, reminiscent of a stern parent’s tone, and adds absolutely nothing except additional tension. And we, in this situation, need support, not whiplash. So instead of saying “You should have…”, let’s say to each other something our friend would say: “Gee, Kate, I’ve been through this a million times.
I’ve been like this a million times. I know what it means. I promised you a good cup of coffee first thing in the morning, and now I’m sending you the strength to do it before the sun comes up, or your child, because both are life-giving and inevitable.
Or another situation: you have an online meeting for the thousandth time at your home office, and for the hundredth time, the child in the next room is acting up, even though you asked for quiet, so you yell, so that it goes right on his heels.
Instead of saying to yourself, “I am a bad father” or, “I am the worst mother in the world,” say to yourself exactly what a friend would say to you over wine: “Everyone would be nervous. You might want to think about your choice of words next time, but I’m not surprised you fired back like that. It’s hard to have everyone in the house and do everything at once. You’re doing the best you can. Is there anything I can do to help? “
When we begin to feel loneliness more strongly and the experience of isolation, of living behind glass, without others, permeates us, let’s not reproach ourselves. Instead of getting caught up in thinking: “there’s something wrong with me,” “I suck,” or “no one wants to be with me,” do an exercise and tell yourself exactly what you would like to hear from a friend to whom you are important. It’s such an exercise in perspective.
As I write this, I realize that this may sound artificial, strange, or uncomfortable at first. But what do we have to lose? Not much and very much at the same time. We can lose ourselves if we don’t develop that micro-love for ourselves in time. If we have skeptic readers here, I want to tell you that I once had the same thing.
The concept of loving myself at first seemed like something from outer space to me. I know it’s important and I can see how it can help, but how the hell do I learn it?
Now let’s move on to practice.
Now take your right hand and stroke your left forearm, touching your skin tenderly and gently. Then recall some difficult moments from your own life. Some painful times that needed soothing. Don’t stop stroking yourself.
And with all of this, now say to yourself silently this phrase: “This is a moment of suffering. It is a difficult moment. But suffering is part of life. May I be gentle with myself now. May I give myself as much tenderness as I need?
Acknowledging to ourselves that suffering is a natural part of life and that we will experience it brings a kind of relief and permission for it to be difficult, for it to be sad, for there to be tears.
And that exercise changed everything. In my case, it changed the way I think about self-compassion from then on, and my initial concern about losing my momentum for achievement was gone forever. Suddenly, the phrase “achieve something in life” began to mean “achieve a healthy and honest level of self-compassion” to me.