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“Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion on all of those unwanted parts of ourselves.” –Pema Chodron

The Big Idea –One thing is certain—leaders cannot develop a true champion’s mindset without practicing the skills of self-compassion.

Before you dismiss this idea, know this—for years I ignored the research on self-compassion because I thought it didn’t apply to me.

I thought it was too fluffy, weak—and self-focused.

If you are reading this blog, you probably fall into the category of the high-achieving, growth-oriented, and driven—and someone who wants to lead your family well.

You probably push yourself hard, and look out for the needs of others around you.

These are precisely the people that need self-compassion the most.

Over the long haul, you can only sustain the ability to give away compassion to the extent you are willing to practice it yourself.

Today we will explore research by psychologist and internationally recognized self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, who has dedicated much of her life to understanding this subject.

Her work has helped millions of people improve the quality of their lives through greater awareness and practice of self-compassion.

Outer success, inner torment

Over the years, I’ve observed a number of people with strikingly similar characteristics.

Consider Susie (not a real name and could also be male). Susie is a hard-charging business leader with an executive position. She is a deeply intentional mother and devoted wife.

She mentors younger women and is very involved in her church. She helps lead efforts to end human trafficking in her community, and she is treasured by her family and friends.

By all accounts, she is the quintessential role model. The world is made better by her presence.

But Susie has anxiety attacks, insomnia, and a host of physical illnesses that often interfere with her life and work (think chronic pain, migraines, or IBS).

What is the cause of Susie’s mental and physical suffering?

The answer may be a lack of self-compassion.

Despite all her accomplishments and impact, her inner dialogue paints a much different picture. Susie is constantly judging herself, telling herself she is not good enough, or isn’t doing enough.

Most of her friends and colleagues have no idea that she spends many of her days in self-induced mental torment.

She may not even be aware of it herself.

I need to repeat that this example could just as easily be a man. I’ve seen countless examples of driven and impactful men—unknowingly attempting to punish themselves to success.

As a recovering perfectionist and people pleaser, I’ve lived most of my life this way and I am still on my journey to curbing these bad habits.

Some warning signs that may signal a lack of self-compassion include anxiety, workaholism, increased substance use, or physical manifestations such as chronic pain, IBS, or migraines.

If you haven’t read my previous post on inner Saboteurs (or taken the free online test), I highly recommend you do that after reading this.

5 reasons people reject self-compassion—and the research that refutes it

There is a modern obsession with books about “Grit” or Navy Seal discipline— as the path to success.

I love those books too.

But this approach to success has a dark side—it can damage happiness and joy, and even inhibit performance—because this approach can easily lead people into habits of self-judgment and self-castigation, because they mistakenly believe it is the best way to motivate themselves.

But a growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that relating to ourselves in a more kind and compassionate way is not only essential for well-being, it also leads to improved performance in many areas of life and work.

Furthermore, research clearly shows that a lack of self-compassion plays a key role in causing or exacerbating anxiety and depression.

So why do many high-achievers reject the idea of self-compassion?

According to Dr. Neff, the following are the most common mistaken beliefs people have…

  1. Self-compassion is the same as self-pity. In fact, the opposite is true. Research at the University of Leuven found that people with higher levels of self-compassion are less likely to ruminate on aspects of themselves they find undesirable because they identify the emotion, feel it, and move on.
  2. Self-compassion will lead to weakness. Again, the opposite appears to be true. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that people with higher self-compassion scores had better resilience and psychological adjustment 9 months after a divorce.
  3. Self-compassion will make me lazy. People think—“If I don’t beat myself up, how will I ever accomplish anything?” But research at UC Berkley shows that self-compassion is far more effective for personal motivation than self-punishment. One study looked at participants that felt guilty about something and showed that people with greater self-compassion scores were more likely to apologize for harm they inflicted, and they actually showed a higher level of commitment to changing their behavior in the future.
  4. Self-compassion will make me more narcissistic. It is important to note that self-esteem is not the same a self-compassion. Self-esteem is usually a comparison process where we need to feel better than others, whereas self-compassion is a way to support ourselves through the storms of life. Research by Leary at Wake Forest University showed that people with higher self-esteem scores were more likely to be upset by neutral feedback (because they may crave praise). The study suggested that those with high levels of self-compassion are better able to remain emotionally stable regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others.
  5. Self-compassion is self-centered. Think about a time you were lost in a downward spiral of self-criticism. Are we ever more self-focused than when we are in that state? Furthermore, punishing ourselves also leaves us with less emotional energy to support the people we care about. Neff and colleagues conducted a study at the University of Texas that evaluated 100 couples. The spouses with higher scores on self-compassion were more likely to be satisfied with their partners and be described by their partners as caring! The study suggests that depriving oneself of self-compassion may cause people to lean more heavily on their partner to meet their emotional needs, which can lead to resentment.

The bottom line is that treating yourself kindly helps make you more emotionally stable, insulates you from anxiety and depression, and better equips you to care for others.

Conclusion: Self-compassion is an important leadership skill

As a leader, you need the skills of self-compassion to weather the inevitable failures and criticisms you will face as you set goals and take risks.

You also need self-compassion to avoid the host of physical and mental suffering that inevitably results from harsh self-judgments and attempting to punish yourself to success.

Without being equipped with the requisite tools of self-compassion, you are missing an essential part of your toolkit for a champions mindset.

What’s more—unless you develop the requisite personal leadership skill of self-compassion—research shows that you are much more likely to suffer personally; you are more likely to inflict suffering on those in your organization; and you may increase the suffering of those closest to you—including your spouse and children.

And remember, your kids are likely to follow your example. Do you want them to grow up torturing themselves or motivating themselves through self-kindness?

Turn information into action

The following strategies are adapted from Neff’s research…

  1. Build emotional awareness through journaling or meditation. The goal is to identify your emotions while not being consumed by them (Mindfulness). Identifying your emotions is a critical first step. I recommend the Headspace app and have no affiliation with them.
  2. Remember you are not alone. Beating ourselves up often makes us feel alone in our suffering. This means we must remind ourselves that we are imperfect like everyone else, and that suffering is part of the human experience. Share your struggles with safe people in your life.
  3. How would you treat a friend? This is an excellent evidence-based journaling assignment that helps you looks at how you would treat a friend who was going through the same situation you are experiencing. Then think about how you can treat yourself with the same approach. Link below for full exercise.

If you are interested in more in depth resources on this topic, I’ve included several links below you can check out.

Have a great weekend!


*If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

Suggested Resources

  1. TED Talk by Kristin Neff
  2. Website for Kristin Neff
  3. Link to Self Compassion Exercises by Kristin Neff
  4. Link to Self-Compassion Scales
  5. 5 Myths about self compassion article with research citations
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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