By Nico Rose –
Some people seem to believe that the world-wide pandemic is a time for self-optimization. For several weeks now, the self-help sections of many news outlets are overflowing with well-intentioned but, measured by their consequences, poorly directed advice.
- How to design the perfect work-from-home environment!
- With these simple tricks your face will look more attractive on a video call!
- How to keep the reins tight while your employees works from home!
As if it weren’t difficult enough to lead a decent life under normal circumstances, we´re asked to “perform” and to “shine”, even while cherished routines don’t work any more, crucial income streams are drying up, and it’s prohibited to seek the close comfort of being with important people in our lives. In other words, we’re being asked to self-optimize while our worlds are breaking apart.
What We Urgently Need Now: Compassion for Ourselves
Instead of trying to maintain a beautiful veneer under the current circumstances, I would like to recommend something entirely different to open-minded readers: Cultivate a stance that psychology professor Kristin Neff calls self-compassion. The best way to think about self-compassion is just showing to yourself the same level of kindness, care, and support when you´re struggling or suffering that you would also show to a good friend. When we look at the way people treat themselves, we´ll notice that oftentimes, they´re much harder on themselves than on others. Accordingly, a simple way of thinking about self-compassion is including yourself in that circle of concern.
The Three Pillars of Self-Compassion
In scientific terms, there are three pillars to self-compassion:
- Mindfulness. Put simply, this is about staying in the moment without too much judgment. With respect to self-compassion, this means at times we have to be mindful of our pain and our struggle. Yet typically, people try to avoid these emotions. One goal of self-compassion is to learn how to just be with those feelings. That also means not trying to fix everything right away.
- Self-kindness. This involves responding to our suffering with kind-heartedness and care in a non-judgmental way. It helps to imagine a good friend approaching to talk about a troublesome crisis. How would we react? What would we say or do? What would we want to avoid doing so as not seem indifferent or disrespectful?
- Common humanity. This one is about recognizing that all people live imperfect lives, especially under the current circumstances. That may seem obvious, but emotionally, when we suffer, we tend to believe this should not be happening to us. This, in turn, can lead people to feeling disconnected. So, not only do we have to face the struggle itself, but we also have to deal with feelings of shame about failing. But when we manage to remember this is part of the human experience, we feel better connected to other people, and it gives us a sense of perspective.
Self-Compassion Does Not Mean Sitting Out
At first glance, self-compassion may sound weak, especially when compared to those headstrong heroes we know from our favorite Hollywood movies. However, Kristin Neff regularly emphasizes that self-compassion is not equivalent to accepting what is. She says that there are Yin and Yang parts to self-compassion. The softer Yin part is about the internal perspective: caring, comforting, and nurturing. But there also is a strong external Yang element which involves questions such as “How do I protect myself?”, and “How do I move forward?” It´s obvious that this element is very important in business settings. At the same time, there´s a natural tendency in organizations to stick to the Yang side too much. Accordingly, organizational leaders need to model and encourage the softer Yin side of self-compassion as well, especially now, when so many employees are suffering in one way or another.
I am aware that the concept of self-compassion may initially feel strange to some people, especially to those who are used to performing well, no matter what. Ultimately, we can think about self-compassion as a supportive voice within ourselves, a kind of caring and constructive coach. A good coach will not tell us everything´s fine when it´s clearly not. Instead, a good coach will ask tough questions and point out areas of improvement. But the coach will never devalue us, always make it clear that on a basic level that we´re a worthy human being.
This is what we all need to remember. It is true on any given day, but even more so in times of the corona pandemic. We are all human, and therefore we´re all imperfect and vulnerable, especially now. We don´t need to pretend we have everything under control. We don´t have to be perfect. We´re definitely not less lovable for being imperfect. Let’s grant ourselves space to experience this kind of comfort in the same way we would grant it to our parents, our partners, our children, and our best friends. We do deserve it.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins.
Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-Compassion Step by Step: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Sounds True.
Dr. Nico Rose (MAPP ’14) is a professor for organizational psychology at International School of Management (ISM) in Dortmund, Germany. He worked for Bertelsmann, Europe’s largest media corporation from 2010 to 2018, most recently as Vice President Employer Branding & Talent Acquisition. For several years, he published Mappalicious, the German side of positive psychology. His book, Arbeit besser machen, was published in 2019. Nico’s articles can be found here.