Why Self-Compassion Should Be in Every Coach’s Toolbox

In the west, we almost uniformly believe that being self-critical will make us work harder, perform better, and turn us into a much-improved people. But what the scientific data show is that judging ourselves harshly and beating up on ourselves actually makes us weaker in the face of failure, more emotionally reactive, and less likely to get the lessons we need to learn from our failures. We increase our levels of stress, anxiety, shame, and depression. These then position us for a second tier of suffering: feeling isolated from others, feeling insecure or inadequate. Never mind the disturbed sleep, poor concentration, and less-than-stellar coping strategies, from binge eating to excessive

drinking. Ack.

Imagine telling a child, “You’re such a loser.” Or raging at a friend, “you’re a stupid jerk.” Most of us don’t behave that way and intuitively understand why: it’s psychologically harmful and does not lead to lasting change. And yet, we would not hesitate to talk to ourselves that way.

But consider this: Our brain cannot distinguish between an external threat and our own self-critical voice. When we talk trash to ourselves, we become both the attacker and the attacked.

Just like under an external attack, we go into a ‘fight-or flight’ stress response. Which douses us in a stew of stress hormones that shut down all but our most necessary bodily mechanisms for survival. To fight the threat, we may beat up on ourselves; to flee it, we might numb out with excessive distractions; freeze in the face of the threat through rumination — rerunning endless loops of our inadequacies; or, submit to the threat by admitting we really are that terrible after all.

How could anyone be productive or perform at his or her best under those conditions? Never mind feel happy or well.

Since productivity and performance, wellness and wellbeing are the domain of coaches, noticing how our clients talk to themselves is a relevant area of concern for us. We are in the business of change, which requires experimentation, trial and error. So what happens when our clients fall short? Or experience fear, frustration, and anger at their shortcomings? How can we be helpful to our clients in hard times?

There is an impressive and growing body of research that shows that the antidote to harsh self-criticism is self-compassion: the act of turning kindness toward ourselves when we’ve failed or see some part of ourselves we don’t like. This might sound obvious — or New Agey. Or, sound simply absurd: When we mess up, don’t we deserve to be punished?

Held accountable, yes. Punished, no. At the heart of self-compassion is the idea that we are worthy of care and respect, despite the unavoidable fact that to be human means we are also flawed. Humans make mistakes. We have shortcomings. But how we treat the fact of our own shortcomings determines how quickly or easily we move through our challenges and failures, learn what we need to, make amends as needed, and move on.

Pioneering researcher and psychologist in the field of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, says that people frequently resist offering kindness to themselves because they think such behaviour will let themselves off the hook — that self-judgment is the thing that keeps them in line. Add to the list of what makes people resistant: fear of appearing weak, self- indulgent, self-pitying, or self-absorbed.

But actually, research shows the opposite is true. It turns out that self-judgment actually distorts reality. Self-compassionate people are less likely to get swallowed up by self- pitying thoughts, and their attendant storylines. They tend to be more reflective, ask of themselves how they could be more skilful in the future and have done a better job in the past. They tend to feel guilt or remorse that’s equal to the deed, and apologise when they have wronged others. Because they feel a sense of their own agency, they also feel more optimism and hope.

What’s not to love?

The research clearly shows that self-compassion is a generative process, a prescription for motivation, and an antidote for perfectionism. When we know we are on our own side, we are willing to take more risks, dream big, and be less immobilised by fear of failure. We come to trust that whatever struggles and imperfections we have, and whatever mistakes we make, it’s all grist for the mill. We will be okay. We will fail. Humans do.

The good news is anyone can develop a practice of self-compassion. Neff created the Self-Compassion Break, a portable, straightforward practice that takes just moments to do. (Hear her lead The Self-Compassion Break on her website: www.selfcompassion.org)

Self-compassion has its roots in Buddhist scholarship. In fact, Neff was introduced to the concept when she took up the study of meditation during a difficult marital break-up. Like meditation, which relies on mindfulness — being aware of what’s happening in the moment — we first need to notice that we are being self-judging or ruminating on our shortcomings. Then, we interrupt those voices and replace them with fitting words of kindness instead. “That was really awful. These things happen. You’re gonna be okay.”

While this may seem contrived at first, it becomes easier and faster over time because we actually wire our brain for self-acceptance — it becomes a habit.

While similar to mindfulness, the practice goes one step further. It requires that we learn to self-soothe by embracing ourselves — both literally and figuratively — with warmth and tenderness when we suffer a painful experience, even when we are the source of it. Just as the brain cannot distinguish the difference between a threat that comes from within or without, so too the brain cannot tell if it’s our own touch or someone else’s.

As mammals we are wired for touch — it’s part of the mammalian care-giving system, which mends, restores, and signals to us that we are not alone. Touch produces oxytocin, one of the brain’s “happy” hormones. Called “the love hormone,” it’s not only released through cuddling, but when people bond socially, too. It feels great plus it lowers our cortisol levels — one of the hormones released during stress. We feel calm and more relaxed, positive, we see the bigger picture; we see ourselves as we are: fallible, but worthy.

One caveat for the self-critical: it’s a self-compassion practice. Neff likes to point out that people sometimes beat themselves up for failing to stop beating themselves up. “You can’t even get this right,” people will say. It’s probable we’ll fail along the way, so be kind to yourself, even then. We practice to get better at practicing.

The Self-Compassion Break: A How To

1. Notice that you are experiencing a moment of difficulty, and gently interrupt it

2. Place your hands on your heart, or arms folded across your chest and give a squeeze of offer another comforting gesture, feeling the warmth and weight of your hands

3. Say to yourself some version of the following:

· This is a moment of difficulty….

· Everyone experiences difficulties as a part of life….

· I’m going to be kind to myself in this moment….

For the final step, ask yourself, what do I need to hear? Let the answer bubble up. Offer a word of encouragement, endearment, or earnest support. It could be something like:

4. “That was really rough. You did your best. I applaud your courage.”


· When we are being hard on ourselves

· When we feel rejected

· When we see something we don’t like about ourselves.

A self-compassion practice builds resiliency over time and creates a more positive climate that energises and helps motivate us to try again. As coaches, when we hear our clients give themselves an undo negative self-appraisal, it’s a flag for us to bring our curiosity and concern because this may be our client at his or her most vulnerable. We can gently challenge the incongruity of our clients’ perceptions with the reality of who we know our clients to be. We can ask powerful questions such as, “what might a kind friend say instead?” Or, “if this happened to someone you love, what would you advise…?” We can respond genuinely with honest statements, such as, “I feel sad when I hear you talk to yourself that way.” Or brainstorm a list of go-to phrases for when that self-critical voice comes up in the future.

It may not be comfortable at first for some clients to explore this possibility. But given the benefits (and considering the toll self-criticism takes) as a coach, keep it on your radar to help your client tap into the idea of self-acceptance over time. The humanist psychologist Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” As a coach, consider developing your own self-compassion practice. After all, we’re human, too.

Want to dig deeper?

Kristin Neff: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

Christopher Germer: The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from

Destructive Thoughts and Emotions

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