When people experience a setback at work—whether it’s a bad sales quarter, being overlooked for a promotion, or an interpersonal conflict with a colleague—it’s common to respond in one of two ways.
Either we become defensive and blame others, or we berate ourselves. Unfortunately, neither response is especially helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure, but it comes at the expense of learning.
Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted in the moment, but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development.
What if instead we were to treat ourselves as we would a friend in a similar situation? More likely than not, we’d be kind, understanding, and encouraging. Directing that type of response internally, toward ourselves, is known as self-compassion, and it’s been the focus of a good deal of research in recent years.
Psychologists are discovering that self-compassion is a useful tool for enhancing performance in a variety of settings, from healthy aging to athletics. I and other researchers have begun focusing on how self-compassion also enhances professional growth.
For nonacademics, self-compassion is a less familiar concept than self-esteem or self-confidence. Although it’s true that people who engage in self-compassion tend to have higher self-esteem, the two concepts are distinct. Self-esteem tends to involve evaluating oneself in comparison with others. Self-compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve judging the self or others. Instead, it creates a sense of self-worth because it leads people to genuinely care about their own well-being and recovery after a setback.
People with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviors: First, they are kind rather than judgmental about their own failures and mistakes; second, they recognize that failures are a shared human experience; and third, they take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short—they allow themselves to feel bad, but they don’t let negative emotions take over.
Kristin Neff, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, has developed a survey tool that assesses the three components of self-compassion. Researchers and practitioners have used the tool to shed light on what personality traits and behaviors are associated with self-compassion and have found, among other things, that people who score high typically have greater motivation to improve themselves and are more likely to report strong feelings of authenticity—the sense of being true to the self. Both are important contributors to a successful career. The good news is that both of these traits can be cultivated and enhanced through self-compassion.