“I can’t do this. I’m going to fail”
“My colleagues are much more competent than me. I am rubbish at my job”
“If I don’t get this work done on time my boss will think I am useless”
Do any of these sound familiar to you?
When we experience setbacks, challenges or things don’t go to plan we often react with self-criticism. Maybe we make a mistake in a presentation, say the wrong thing to a colleague or arrive late to an important meeting. These negative thoughts seem to appear out of nowhere and often leave us feeling bad about ourselves. But rarely do we ask ourselves whether this criticising self-talk is actually useful or motivating, or consider the impact thinking this way has on us.
Usually resulting from “scripts” we have developed through our childhood experiences, self-critical thinking has been shown to negatively affect our confidence and wellbeing. Increased feelings of threat linked to these thoughts can quickly ignite the sympathetic nervous system, pushing us into fight or flight mode. Indeed, self-criticism has been associated with a number of mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. Research has also indicated this type of negative self-talk predicts loss of self-esteem, procrastination and negative perfectionism.
So if negative self-talk makes things worse, can practicing self-compassion make things better?
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion has been defined in the following ways:
• Being kind and non-judgemental to ourselves
• Using soothing and self-reassurance at times of adversity
• Recognising that our experience is part of the human condition (Gilbert, 2009)
People who rely on negative self-talk to motivate themselves and help themselves to achieve a competitive edge might be surprised to know that self-compassion could be more effective in helping us to achieve our goals. For example, one study found that self–compassion is positively associated with the practice of health-promoting behaviours including stress management, exercise and sleep behaviours.
How does self-compassion lead to increased wellbeing?
There is growing evidence that self-compassion can have beneficial effects on our mental health and wellbeing, that showing love and compassion to ourselves can help us to feel less stressed and more connected with others.
While previous studies have been unable to explain the mechanisms by which self-compassion benefits us, recently published research monitored psychological and physical responses to self-compassion exercises and found that these exercises function to calm the threat response, reducing arousal and enhancing emotion regulation at times of adversity. This reduced physiological arousal was linked to a greater sense of connection with others and feelings of safety.
How to use self-compassion at work
If self-compassion reduces stress, enhances well-being and helps build our motivation to stick to our goals, it can clearly benefit us in the work environment.
Plus, work is one of the places we are most likely to experience triggers for negative self-talk. And, it’s also the context where the impact of it on our emotions and our behaviours is likely to be most problematic.
So, here are a few tips to help you bring more self-compassion into your work:
1. Notice when critical self-talk presents itself. Remind yourself that these narratives about yourself are not necessarily true. Imagine what you might say to a friend who was having these unpleasant thoughts. This can help us to generate kindness and understanding towards ourselves.
2. Identify and practice soothing exercises that are helpful to you. Using mindfulness techniques to connect you with the present moment can help to anchor you, increase self-awareness and calm the stress response. Other soothing activities might be to listen to a favourite piece of music, have a warm drink or put on a cozy jumper.
3. Use compassionate imagery to soothe and calm yourself when you notice self-critical thoughts. This might be an image of a calm place where you feel comfortable, safe and soothed. It may be a real or an imagined place, a place of calmness and beauty, like a woodland or a beach. Take a few moments to explore the detail of being in this place.
4. Draw on your social network. The truth is we can’t do everything on our own. Sometimes just saying “yes” when someone offers to help, rather than pushing on alone, can make all the difference. Maybe experiment with asking for someone else’s perspective on a problem. Connecting with work colleagues helps us to feel that work is a shared task that we can tackle together.
Self-compassion not only helps us achieve better mental health and wellbeing, but also enhances our resilience. By using these strategies we can learn to respond more flexibly to setbacks, accept and move on from negative feedback, bounce back from difficult experiences and flourish.
So, maybe it’s time we all started to be kinder to ourselves.
If you’d like to discover some other tactics to help you increase your wellbeing and resilience, then resilience coaching may be just what you need. You can find out more about what it is and how it can benefit you in this article and here on our website.