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November 15, 2021 by Dede Henley

The Secret To Self-Compassion In Leadership

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Previously published on Forbes

I made a big mistake. I lost my cool and raised my voice in anger with an employee. Exactly what not to do. I regained some level of composure within minutes and apologized, but the damage was done. Afterwards, I beat myself up for days, waking up in the middle of the night and regretting what I’d done. 

I was falling into what I call a “shame spiral.” The internal diatribe sounded something like this: You know better. You coach other leaders not to do what you did. You have no integrity. You’re a terrible person.

Ouch. 

What’s worse is that I had suffered an incident at the hands of an angry boss early in my career that had scared and traumatized me. After he yelled and pounded his fist down on the table in front of me, I went to the women’s bathroom, locked myself in a stall and sobbed fat tears. I quit that job the next day. 

And now I’m thinking, here I am. I am him. I am that bad boss. 

Am I? Yes and no. But I do know that I am being super hard on myself for my misstep. For being human. 

Which is why I picked up a book on self-compassion. A trusted friend recommended Dr. Kristin Neff’s book, “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” 

In my 30s, I challenged myself to learn about compassion, something I seemed to be sorely lacking. And somewhere along the line, I did develop compassion for others. But I never considered being kind to myself. It wasn’t a thing. 

The Self-Criticism Trap

I’ve always been hard on myself. I guess I thought it motivated me. Or kept me from turning into a couch potato. Dr. Kristin Neff says fear of laziness and self-indulgence is the number one reason people give for why they aren’t more self-compassionate.

What’s more, I value self-discipline and think that’s helped me to be successful. But has it, really? 

At times, I am so tough on myself that I don’t do risky things. For example, I stopped speaking publicly, mostly because I was so self-critical and hard on myself for days and weeks afterwards. I would cringe internally whenever I thought about something I said or did that I thought was embarrassing. So, I stepped aside from this particular expression, thereby limiting myself and my career. 

Lately, I’ve turned up the volume on my self-criticism and am hearing it as if for the first time. What I’ve found is that I give myself very little room to be human. To make mistakes. To screw up. 

It turns out, self-criticism isn’t all that helpful. It often makes things so much worse. It can cause you to feel inadequate and insecure, which often has you take out your frustrations on the people closest to you. More importantly, it can send you into shame. Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

I don’t want any of that for you or for me. 

3 Steps to Greater Self-Compassion

So, how do we begin to offer ourselves some self-compassion?

For starters, you can talk to yourself the way you would talk to a beloved friend, family member or child—with love and kindness. If you wouldn’t say something to someone you love, don’t say it to yourself. Being more kind to yourself means curbing the self-criticism. 

Second, include your humanity in the overall picture—not as an excuse, but as part of the reality. You are not perfect. You will mess up. You are human. You can tell yourself this every time failure or shortcomings come to your doorstep. 

Third, you can begin to register moments of suffering and offer yourself a little mantra that supports self-compassion when you are hurting. The one I have taken from Dr. Neff’s book is “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. I can offer myself kindness and compassion in this moment.” I’ve been saying this to myself during the day and it seems to be causing a softening in my critical inner voice. 

I am human. So are you. Let’s be kind to ourselves and to one another.

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