You’ve undoubtedly heard the airplane metaphor, “When the oxygen mask deploys, put yours on before trying to help others around you.” But in the workplace, that wise advice often falls on deaf ears. Many of us have been taught that self-care is selfish or narcissistic—even cheesy and that self-sacrifice is the ticket to acceptance and success.
During the 1990s, comedians mocked the notion of self-care and self-affirmations with tongue-in-cheek phrases such as, “I’m smart enough” or “I’m good enough.” 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 off-putting idea of building yourself up. In disavowing self-compassion, some career climbers think brutalizing themselves for job missteps and shortcomings is the ticket to course correction. Research shows nothing could be further from the truth. If you stop to think about it, that’s like attacking the fire department when your house is on fire.
Scientists are discovering that if you don’t like yourself, you won’t be motivated to accomplish as much as possible. Studies show that self-judgment, self-criticism and self-loathing build barriers to job engagement, motivation and career advancement. After a setback on the job, they add insult to injury and reduce your chances of rebounding and succeeding. They contribute to performance anxiety, undermine your ability to do your best and cause you to procrastinate. Plus, they create missed learning opportunities, preventing you from learning from your mistakes. If you’re unkind to yourself, 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 to build your career.
Many business leaders still practice old hat tricks from the dark ages. They believe criticism will build the organization and the company’s bottom line. I recently spoke to a CEO of a major corporation who said he was glad his employees were not taking all their vacation days because it saved the company money. Taking vacations, Microbreaks throughout the day, hiring employees who give themselves tender loving care—all contribute to growing a business and the company’s bottom line. Studies show that self-compassion not only reduces job stress, it fuels job performance and achievement. And self-affirmations serve as “cognitive expanders,” allowing you to talk to yourself the way you might speak to someone you care about so that the self-judgment voice isn’t the only story you tell yourself. When you’re kind toward yourself and accept career letdowns with compassion, you deal only with the stressful experience, not the added negative feelings from self-judgment.
The Body Bears The Burden
The impact of psychological factors on the body hasn’t been thoroughly studied. But a recent study found that people who practice self-compassion have lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The scientists found that women who scored higher on self-compassion had thinner carotid artery walls and less plaque buildup than those with lower self-compassion. These indicators have been linked to lower risk of heart attacks and strokes—years later. The positive results persisted even when the researchers controlled for behaviors and other psychological factors that might influence cardiovascular disease outcomes such as physical activity, smoking and depressive symptoms. “These findings underscore the importance of practicing kindness and compassion, particularly towards yourself,” said Dr. Rebecca Thurston, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “We are all living through extraordinarily stressful times, and our research suggests that self-compassion is essential for both our mental and physical health.”
So if self-compassion is powerful enough to mitigate heart disease, stroke, stress and anxiety, irritability and depression, plus boost job engagement and performance, it only follows that business leaders would want to create a compassionate workplace to foster these mental and physical health advantages. After all, studies have shown that the American workforce has been calling empathy and caring from higher-ups and corporate honchos. Sadly, that message hasn’t thoroughly filtered up the chain, partly contributing to “The Great Resignation.”
Self-compassion is a tool for career success and failure, according to Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness To Speak Up Claim Their Power And Thrive. In her book, 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. “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.’”
Make self-compassion a New Year’s resolution, and you will discover that it will boost your mental and physical wellness and career advancement.