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Add some self-compassion to your day

Cox, Sharon, MSN, BSN

doi: 10.1097/01.NUMA.0000550451.02128.4d
Department: Leadership Q&A

Founder and Principal Consultant, Cox & Associates, Brentwood, Tenn.

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Q As we start the new year, our director has asked us to change one behavior to be more productive. I've decided to work on my “inner critic”—it doesn't take much for me to get down on myself and this saps my energy. Do you have any tips on how to manage the negative voice in my head?

Congratulations on having the insight to recognize the ways in which you're self-sabotaging and be assured that we can all relate to the ever-present “inner critic” you describe. When we mess up in some way, our inner dialogue can be harsh sounding, such as “What were you thinking?” “That was so dumb!” “When are you going to learn?” or “You really blew that one!” You would hesitate to say these things to someone you care about, yet they easily come to mind when we give way to self-recrimination rather than self-compassion. In a group of college students learning mindfulness, a nursing student commented, “I'm glad we're talking about self-compassion since it's almost a foreign concept to me.”

Self-compassion may be misconstrued as being selfish or self-indulgent, or we may think that being hard on ourselves can provide motivation. But these are all myths. Self-compassion isn't self-pity; they're entirely different. With self-pity, we play the victim role and stay stuck whereas with self-compassion, we're more open, we keep moving, and we keep things in perspective. Self-compassion is simply being kind to yourself when confronted with a personal failing. Give yourself a break and accept the fact that no one is perfect. Research shows that there's a direct correlation between self-compassion and psychological well-being. Those who practice self-compassion have a greater sense of social connection, less anxiety and fear of failure, and an overall sense of life satisfaction. Self-compassion matters in that it's a key part of resilience—a relevant issue with the pressures in healthcare.1

Dr. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin frames the practice of self-compassion as:

  • self-kindness—talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you love
  • shared humanity—put your situation into a larger perspective; just like me, others have mishandled a situation and lived to tell about it
  • mindfulness—be open to what you feel with nonjudgmental awareness rather than ignoring it or getting caught up in your story.2

As you learn the practice of self-compassion, it helps to know the things that make you susceptible to that critical voice in your head, such as when you compare yourself with others; when you're hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (remember the acronym HALT); or when you fail to pay attention to the things that keep you feeling centered. In her latest book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown states that her own practice of self-compassion requires getting enough sleep, healthy food, exercise, and connections.3 Think about what you need to keep yourself in a good place.

Learn the art of reframing so you have energy rather than getting pulled into a downward spiral. Reframing our frustrations allows us to get a foothold for forward momentum. Use phrases like “Something about this is useful, I just don't know what it is yet” or “I did the best I could in a difficult situation and I'm stronger for it.” Ask what the lesson may be in your situation. Learn the lesson, lay it down, and go on. Consider the value of quiet time each day to learn the practice of self-compassion. And don't forget to keep a sense of humor.

The compassion you offer others will be more authentic if it comes from a place of self-compassion. The next time you mess up, give yourself a hug, speak to yourself like you would to a dear friend, and remember that's why they put erasers on pencils. A moment of self-compassion can make a world of difference in your day.

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REFERENCES

1. David S. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. New York, NY: Random House; 2016: 69–78.
3. Brown B. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. New York, NY: Random House; 2018:196.
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