If an expert said you were doing something that’s stalling your career climb, you would stop doing it. Right? And if she said there’s one simple, guaranteed action that will fuel your career, you’d probably jump on it. Right? Well, here’s the secret sauce. Self-criticism and loathing build barriers to job motivation and career advancement, while self-compassion is an essential tool to excel in your career.
The link between self-compassion and success has been misunderstood—even mocked for decades. During the 1990s, comedians made fun of self-love and self-affirmations with tongue-in-cheek phrases such as “I’m smart enough” or “I’m good enough.” Comedian Al Franken created and performed the fictional character Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live in a mock self-help show called Daily Affirmations. Years since, otherwise willing participants have steered away from the cheesy, off-putting idea of self-compassion and positive affirmations. On top of that, we’ve been taught that self-compassion is selfish or narcissistic and self-sacrifice is a virtue.
If you’re like most enterprising workers, you have a kick-butt voice that bludgeons you with criticism and tells you how worthless, selfish, dumb or incompetent you are. You wouldn’t dream of treating a loved one the way you treat yourself: calling yourself names, pelting yourself for the smallest human slip-ups, disbelieving in yourself enough to give up on your goals. In disavowing self-compassion, many ambitious go-getters find more comfort brutalizing themselves for their missteps and shortcomings. The belief is if we give ourselves too much leeway, we might turn into slackers, and negative self-treatment is more likely to boost performance and advance our careers. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Coming down hard on yourself after a misstep is like fighting the fire department when your house is on fire. It adds insult to injury and reduces your chances of rebounding and ultimately success.
In the aftermath of a career setback—such as a missed promotion, failure to meet a critical deadline or job loss—self-condemnation is the real career blocker, not the setback. Substituting compassion for self-judgment motivates you to get back in the saddle, says Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the groundbreaking book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power Of Being Kind To Yourself.
“The number one block to self-compassion is when business leaders think self-compassion will undermine employee motivation,” Neff says. “They don’t realize that the fierce side of self-compassion is a more effective motivator than self-criticism. The more we can accept ourselves, the more able we are to change and take risks and the less anxious we are about failure. Self-criticism adds to performance anxiety, undermines your ability to do your best and causes you to procrastinate. It prevents you from learning from your mistakes—missed learning opportunities. If we don’t have self-compassion, we pull the rug out from under ourselves and make it so much harder than it needs to be.”
The neuroscience backs her up, showing a direct link between self-compassion and career success. When you remove the second layer of condemnation and substitute compassion, you can see the real barrier more clearly and feel more at ease dealing with it. If you don’t like yourself, you won’t be motivated to accomplish much of anything. You might even be more inclined toward career self-sabotage. Only as you cultivate the right attitude toward yourself will you have the right attitude toward success. In fact, Studies show that self-affirmations serve as “cognitive expanders,” allowing us to talk to ourselves the way we might speak to someone else so that the judgment voice isn’t the only story we tell ourselves. As a result, self-compassion provides the fuel that boosts mood, job performance and achievement.
The Two Sides To Self-Compassion
I had the opportunity to sit down with Neff, to talk about her latest follow-up book, Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness To Speak Up Claim Their Power And Thrive. In it she describes the two sides of self-compassion—the fierce and the tender, both relevant for everyone—and how essential both are to function optimally in our careers and lives.
Neff describes tender self-compassion as what most people think about as self-accepting and self-understanding for emotional healing. We need the tender self-compassion if we’ve been a victim of workplace oppression. If you’ve been oppressed in the workplace (by corporate higher-ups, a toxic boss or co-worker), you need fierce self-compassion to commit to be brave and try to change it. From the point of view of the oppressor, you need tender self-compassion to hold the shame as being part of a group that oppressed others. But you also need fierce self-compassion to commit to not continue the oppression, she says.
According to Neff, we’ve gendered these two life force energies, and we value one more than the other, which hurts both men and women. “We give all the power to the fierceness and belittle the tenderness because one is considered more powerful and valued than the other. But we need both sides—the fierceness and the tenderness—and they need to be integrated. For example, some people—men in particular—believe self-compassion is a female thing; therefore, it’s weak and less valuable. That belief comes from our patriarchal society. On the other hand, women have remained silent because they have been afraid to speak up, although more women are saying, ‘We aren’t going to take this anymore.’ That’s fierce self-compassion. Women don’t have to be afraid or ashamed of their anger. It’s a gift. We don’t want to be out of control or let it loose. We need to be mindful with it, but it’s something to be proud of because of the incredible energy it gives us. It has enabled us to be accomplished and break new ground. Both types of self-compassion go to the same place: how women can be more fierce and men, more tender.”
The Tools Of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is a tool for career success AND failure, Neff explained. “It helps us gain success, and it helps us deal with failure, which helps us succeed. The way you grow and learn is by dealing productively with failure. If you go into shame mode after failure, it disallows you to look at and learn from your failures. It’s not going to allow you to grow or take risks. You can be vulnerable, learn and grow if you have your own back with self-compassion: ‘If I blow it and people ridicule me, I’ll be okay because the bottom line is I’ll be there for myself.’”
Neff also had advice on how to be an effective leader in the workplace: “It’s no longer okay to dominate people. It’s important to learn to develop meaningful connection with employees, to listen and relate in a way that communicates care,” she said. “We know compassionate leaders are more respected by their employees. When we use both sides of self-compassion, we are more likely to excel. The tender allows us to accept ourselves just as we are. It’s okay to be imperfect. But the fierce side encourages us like a good coach: ‘I really care about you, so how can we grow and change and learn and do better next time?’”
These are more than just good ideas, Neff said. They are good skills to learn and grow as a leader and take whatever risks you need to take. These are life skills—tools that can be learned and developed. Corporate leaders often confuse being supportive with being complacent. “Complacency isn’t self-compassionate,” she said. “And it doesn’t alleviate suffering. Kind, supportive, encouraging, clear-sighted, open-minded compassion does help motivation. Imagine how much more people can achieve if they’re more supportive of themselves.”