At this time of increased anxiety and stress are we sometimes responsible for adding to our own suffering? 

By Richard Andrews

Some time ago I was asked to coach an individual who was disruptive within a Board of Directors. Undoubtedly he was technically very good and his functional team were devoted to him. He fiercely protected people within his own department almost as if they were being judged criticised or even attacked by other departments. 

Trouble was that he was often bristly or even abrasive with many of his colleagues on the board. They ran the risk of being dysfunctional and their energies were often spent managing internal conflict rather than achieving company objectives.

Our first session did not begin well. Sure there was a polite shake of hands but after that I was told how this was a complete waste of time, he did not believe that coaching would be worthwhile and he was only here because he was told he had to be.

For a long time I had talked about the benefits of listening. On this occasion I thought it best to practice what I preached and let the storm blow itself out. It did. The content though was telling.

It was clear that he felt under appreciated by fellow board members. I hasten to add that it was a view not shared by his colleagues but felt it was a conversation he was having with himself. After all we talk to ourselves much more than we talked to anybody else. He believed he wasn’t smart enough, good enough and the list went on. His self talk seemed to be 100% negative.

Evolution has blessed us with a mind that is more likely to see the negative. It has enabled us to survive as a species because we are constantly on the lookout for threats. In prehistoric times that twitching in the bushes may be something we can have for lunch. Alternatively it could be something that could have us for lunch. The person that ignores the potential threat, and investigates what he hopes will be a tasty meal, may eat or be eaten. The person that runs away from the threat will go hungry but may have the opportunity to eat another day and their genes are the ones that will be passed on.

Here lies the problem – negative thinking may be useful in certain circumstances. Not always true though. In this case negatives were being perceived where they didn’t really exist. The individual concerned would benefit if he were more kind to himself in the same way he would hope to be kind or compassionate to a partner or friend. Self compassion as it is more commonly known.

Our culture places great emphasis on being kind or compassionate to our friends, family and neighbours who are struggling with a problem. We often do not treat ourselves in the same way.

In a world where exhaustion may be seen as a status symbol and we work under constant pressure, and maybe in an atmosphere of fear as in the current pandemic, self compassion may be seen as weakness but in fact it is not. The misgivings about self-compassion are likely to be misconceptions. They are categorised by Kristin Neff as follows:

Isn’t self-compassion self-pity

Self-compassion is not a “woe is me’’ attitude. Self compassionate people are more likely to engage in perspective taking and not ruminate on how bad things are. Often they enjoy better mental health. They are less likely to exaggerate their struggles and remember that we all have struggles and misfortune;

Self-Compassion will make me lazy

The opposite appears to be the case. Self compassionate people often avoid being self indulgent and think not about short-term pleasure but long-term benefits. Much the way that a compassionate mother doesn’t let her child all the ice cream she wants but says “eat your vegetables”.

If I am compassionate to myself, I’ll let myself get away with murder. I need to be hard on myself to recover from mistakes.

Criticism doesn’t work. Whether it be of colleagues subordinates or children and perhaps most especially of ourselves. Self compassion enables us to accept our mistakes and learn from them and is more likely to help us avoid the pitfalls of blaming others.

I will never get on in life without self criticism to drive me.

Perhaps the most common misgiving and maybe the most dangerous. Self-criticism is not an effective motivator and if anything will undermine self-confidence and lead to a fear of failure. This in turn may cramp our capability of innovation or taking risks. Self compassionate people are likely to have high standards, take risks and enjoy getting it right and enjoy learning from their mistakes.

Perhaps it is far better to think of self kindness. When we make a mistake or fail in some way, we are more likely to be to beat ourselves up than put a supportive arm around our own shoulder. Self kindness counters this tendency so that we are as caring towards ourselves as we are toward others. Rather than being harshly critical when noticing personal shortcomings, we are supportive and encouraging and aim to protect ourselves from home. Instead of attacking and be writing ourselves for being in adequate, we offer ourselves warmth and unconditional acceptance. Similarly, when external life circumstances are challenging and feel too difficult to bear, we actively soothe and comfort ourselves.

Close Menu