When Simone Biles chose to exit the women’s Olympic team gymnastics final to prioritize her well-being, she was choosing self-compassion over performance. It’s the kind of rare role modeling from a top-performer that we can all learn from. Through this experience, Biles tweeted that “The outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” Not only is she more than her accomplishments and gold medals… she is an incredible leader in her own right.
Dr Kristen Neff, PhD has been researching self-compassion for the last 10 years. I think of her as the Brene Brown for self-compassion. And what emerged from her research is that self-compassion leads to greater happiness and less anxiety and depression.
On Self-Compassion vs Self-Worth…
Yet our culture has thrived on competition and consumerism tied to self-worth, leading to the “self-esteem movement” with rising self-centeredness. According to research from Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, 65% of modern-day students score higher in narcissism than past generations.
What is Self-Compassion?
According to Dr. Neff’s research, self-compassion offers the same benefits as self-esteem (greater happiness, less anxiety and depression, etc) without its downsides and is less contingent on things like physical attractiveness or high-performance compared to self-esteem.
According to Dr. Neff’s research, there are 3 critical components of self-compassion:
- Self-Kindness – being understanding with ourselves rather than judgemental
- Recognition of our common humanity – feeling connected with others through our experiences in life rather than alienated by our suffering
- Mindfulness – holding our experiences in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring the pain, numbing, or victimizing ourselves
In other words, the definition for self-compassion according to experts is:
“Self-compassion involves being kind to oneself when confronting personal inadequacies or situational difficulties, framing the imperfection of life in terms of common humanity, and being mindful of negative emotions so that one neither suppresses nor ruminates on them.” (Neff & Beretvas, 2012)
Why does Self-Compassion Matter for Leaders?
Studies show the benefits associated with self-compassion align with several critical leadership skills:
- Emotional Intelligence
- Growth Mindset
- Compassion Toward Others
On the latter one, it’s an important point: Leaders who role-model compassion for themselves are practicing how they treat others compassionately too. Being kind and non-critical towards ourselves and others helps build trust and psychological safety, which results in sustainably higher performance among teams.
How do you develop more self-compassion?
Exercises in the book: I have been doing the exercises in Dr. Neff’s book “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” and practicing everyday for a few weeks now. The exercises aren’t always easy or useful (personally) but I like that it forces me to keep self-compassion more top-of-mind each day.
Meditation: literally the best free tool we have for slowing our minds.
Mental Health Professionals / Therapy: no shame in getting help when one is feeling extra stressed or anxious with professionals who really know this stuff.
Friends: I have found my friends to be the best accountability partners on this. If you have any friends or colleagues who would want to practice this together with you, it’s even more rewarding than doing it alone.
Team: An easy place for you to start this process is with your team (people who depend on you) as a leader. Role-modeling self-compassion for them during this time in addition to compassion for others will make a meaningful difference.