Be kind to yourself: Self-compassion in difficult times
Updated: May 1
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
In the past week or so, I’ve talked with a lot of people who are overloaded in their work – some dealing with problems arising from transitioning to home working, some frantically trying to think of a Plan A, B, and C if their business is closed, some trying to juggle work from home with small children running rampant in the house, and yet others just finding it impossible to concentrate with their mind on the pandemic.
At this time of great stress, it’s tempting just to keep driving yourself so hard that you don’t have time to think about what’s happening. This is an example of what is called ‘avoidant coping’. Research shows that avoiding thinking about a stressful situation - just trying to plough on regardless - can feel helpful in the short term but, in the long term, can contribute to depression and burnout.
Rather than avoidant coping, a more adaptive way to cope with stress is to practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion, according to Neff and Vonk (2009), means three things:
1. Be mindful about how you are feeling. It is important to recognise your emotions. This means slowing down enough to notice how you are feeling, and not running away from those feelings.
If you think about being compassionate towards a person living on the street – to experience compassion, we have to notice that the person is suffering. It’s the same for self-compassion: you first need to recognise your own thoughts and feelings – are you anxious? confused? preoccupied? How are these thoughts and feelings manifesting themselves?
Instead of trying to have “stiff upper lip”, be open and accepting of what is going on for you. It’s ok to say to yourself “this is really difficult right now, and I am struggling”.
2. Be kind to yourself
Imagine your friend came to you, and shared with you that he was feeling overwhelmed and not coping with his work and family demands. You are unlikely to tell your friend to stop being weak and just work harder. Yet we often talk to ourselves this way when we are not coping well. Treat yourself the same way you would treat a friend. Ask yourself “how can I better care for myself?”.
If you can’t get all your tasks done, or you are not up to par quite yet with your work performance, or your house is a mess, give yourself a break. Don’t judge yourself so harshly.
3. Accept your human-ness
The fact that you might at times feel overwhelmed or uptight or unable to cope, doesn’t make you weak: it makes you human. There is no such thing as a perfect person - we all have failings. So you are not alone or unique if you mess up or are not coping well or are falling short in some way. It is our shared reality as humans – we are all struggling in our various ways. Sharing your feelings with others helps.
Self-compassion is not weakness. In fact, research shows that when you are kind to yourself, and don’t judge yourself harshly, you are more resilient in the face of adversity (Neff, K. D., & McGehee, P., 2010).
Nor is it selfish to exercise self-compassion. Indeed, you cannot fully support other people, or be effective in your role as a parent, father, manager, mother, sister, friend, if you are not feeling ok yourself (Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F., 2011).
In the notes for this video, I provide a quick quiz you can do to check out your self-compassion and a link to an activity you can try.
So if it's feeling tough right now, today I encourage you to hit the ‘pause’ button in your brain, take a little bit of time out, ask yourself if you are ok, and then be kind… to you.
Check your self-compassion
Answer these questions. If you find yourself disagreeing with most of them, your self-compassion is low:
When I’m feeling low, I try to approach my feelings with openness
When I fail at something, I try to take a balanced view of the situation
I am kind to myself
I’m tolerant of my own flaw
When I feel inadequate in some way, I remind myself most people feel like this
When things are going badly for me, I see this as part of the difficulties of life that everyone goes through
Answer these questions. High levels of agreement suggest you might lack self-compassion:
High levels of agreement suggest you might lack self-compassion
When I’m feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on things
When something painful happens to me, I tend to blow the incident out of proportion
I tend to be tough on myself
I am disapproving and judgmental of myself
When I am feeling bad, I assume others are probably all happier than I am
When I think about my imperfections, it makes me feel more separate and cut off from the world
If your scores are low, an interesting practical activity to engage in to practice self-compassion is here:
More about self-compassion
Kristin Neff tackles the misconceptions that stop us from being kinder to ourselves.
In this article, Professor Petriglieri explains the challenge of dealing with our anxiety through “panic-working”, or obsessing with staying productive, as a manic defense mechanism.
In her Ted talk, dr. Susan David explains the concept of emotional agility, or the capacity to approach negative emotions in a mindful, value-driven, and productive way. She discusses how emotional agility, especially in leaders, can help people manage stress, stimulate innovation, and improve performance.
Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of general psychology, 15(4), 289-303.
Marroquín, B., Tennen, H., & Stanton, A. L. (2017). Coping, emotion regulation, and well-being: Intrapersonal and interpersonal processes. In The happy mind: Cognitive contributions to well-being (pp. 253-274). Springer, Cham.
Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of research in personality, 41(1), 139-154.
Neff, K. D., & McGehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and identity, 9(3), 225-240.
Neff, K. D., & Vonk, R. (2009). Self‐compassion versus global self‐esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77(1), 23-50.