Be Gentle with Yourself: A “Hard Charger’s” Guide
2020 was hard. Personally, professionally, socially and culturally we were put through the wringer and hung to dry.
It was hard on our health, it was hard on our psychology, it was plain hard. And 2021 has not started much better.
2020 Taught us that your career does not exist in isolation
This period has helped us realize how greatly our career and our work life is affected by our context. It’s affected by our health and mental well-being. It’s affected by social turmoil. Our environment weighs on our interactions every single day. Your career is no longer just dependent on the economy, and your certifications. The realization is that we are whole people both in and outside of work. And you cannot isolate one area of your life and pretend that it doesn’t impact the rest of it.
To get through it I’ve needed to learn to be gentle with myself.
And this is something that I’m not good at all. I am a type-A “achiever”. I work very hard and I expect only the very best from my performance at all times. And my standards for myself are higher than anyone else’s standards for me.
In fact, they can be unreasonably high. I was that girl who was frustrated by a grade of less than 90%.
In my first year of university, I had a mental breakdown when I barely passed my math midterm. I had thought that I was good at math… so I was crushed. (Note that I still passed… I see my own craziness now). I threatened to drop out of school and self-criticism took over. I let one exam result change my perception of my ability to do math. Even now I catch myself saying “I’m not good with numbers.”
Yeah, “tough on myself” is an understatement.
My self-judgement has started to get better as I work on it, but it’s not fixed yet.
Working in recruitment during 2020 resulted in losing clients (no surprise there) and a lot of the work that we had done up to that point unravelled. I started a new position and had to learn new skills while managing the stress of losing clients. I would call my Mom feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and upset. I would burst into tears trying to explain to her that even though I felt this way I was not going to permit myself to take it easy to relax. I felt that I needed to plough through it no matter what because that’s how I deal with problems.
“Tough it out” is common, but bad, advice
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. I had a conversation this week with a very close friend of mine. She’s at the beginning of her career and landed her “dream job” about five months ago. She had lots of expectations of what her work-life was going to look like. And unfortunately for her (as it is with many people) the work culture was toxic. She was not thriving. Her expectations of an easy transition into her career was thwarted by poor training, and a bad culture fit. But the worst part is that she feels like she is failing.
She needed a reminder that this is a common experience. Many new graduates have to learn to be gentle with themselves at the beginning of their career. “Gritting it out” isn’t always the best choice. And there is a difference between “toughing it out” and showing self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a practised skill
My favourite tips to develop self-compassion come in the form of catchy phrase. I repeat them to myself often! They aren’t original to me (although I can’t remember the origin of most of them), but they all make a drastic impact on the way I approach myself when feeling stressed, neglected, or like a failure.
Mantra Number 1: “Don’t should on yourself.”
This is a great phrase that I keep in mind all the time. It can be so easy to say that I “should do this”, or I “should do that”. Or I shouldn’t feel this way. Especially if you are an achiever-type with high expectations.
But here’s the thing about the word “should”. It contains underlying self-judgement. You are not just saying, “I should do this.” You are actually implying “I should do this… or else I’m bad.” Whatever you’re implying negatively impacts your self-perception. Avoid the word “should” when you’re talking about yourself, and you will begin to avoid self-judgment and criticism.
Mantra Number 2: “what others think about you is none of your business.”
This phrase comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. And I love it. Because a lot of us get caught up in trying to impress others.
Impressing others is an un-gentle thing to do because it’s a close-to-impossible task. Others aren’t paying as much attention to you as you are paying attention to you. And impressing them relies on their thoughts, not yours. Since we think about ourselves so much, we project our own self-criticism onto others and expect that others will think the same things.
Thinking less about what others think of you (and more about what you think of you) is a really powerful way to develop gentleness.
Mantra Number 3: “don’t ask more of yourself than you would ask of others”
I have very high standards for myself. I would never impose it on other people. I do expect a lot from the people around me, but I never expect as much of them as I expect for me. To balance out my self-criticism I ask, “Is this something I would expect of the people close to me?”
8 out of 10 times I would never expect them to live up to the standard that I have set for myself. And that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have high standards for yourself (I believe in stretching and expecting a lot from yourself). But there’s a fine line between expecting good things from yourself and overexpecting things that you can’t deliver on. Especially when lack of delivery will result in ongoing self-criticism. So if I am feeling especially judgemental, I have to assess if my expectations were reasonable. I ask myself, “why did I expect that of myself in the first place?”
Mantra Number 4: “Bring your growth mindset”.
It’s much easier to be gentle to yourself if you add the word “yet” to your sentences.
For example, “I don’t know how to do this” vs. “I don’t know how to do this yet.”
Yet implies that you are a growth-minded individual. That you are going to be learning whatever it is that you don’t understand right now. It reduces your judgement and builds compassion.
Mantra Number 5: “Have standards with grace.”
I love the word grace. It has so many definitions, but my favourite is:
Favour or goodwill — Dictionary.com
“Standards with grace” means to be consistent and clear with your expectations, but then have compassion for the fact that you can’t predict everything that will go on around you. You can’t assume that your plan will go perfectly or that you will always have the best day. But you can be kind to yourself anyways.
In 2021 “standards with grace” means that on days where people are storming the Capitol or where the local Covid numbers spike through the roof, I don’t expect myself to perform at the same level as if nothing is going on.
“Grace” implies that I will allow myself to feel and experience the things that are happening and will take time to process those things. We all need some time to work through challenges, but everyone needs a different amount of time. Admitting that I am impacted by the things around me is hard, but it builds compassion and empathy… which is a human phenomenon.
Being gentle with yourself (in the context of “career”) is a very personal journey.
My mantras have helped me to develop self-compassion and self-empathy, but they’re in no way prescriptive. And gentleness with myself helps me be gentle with others.
I don’t want to tell others how to be gentle with themselves because it’s a very personal journey. It is up to the individual to learn self-compassion, and I don’t want other people to “should on themselves” because I’ve told them that they need to be more gentle with themselves.
But if these tools help you, then that’s great!
Try not to judge others for needing time to learn to be gentle to themselves. Instead, help them along the way by highlighting some of the positive things that they’re not seeing about themselves. Allow yourself to thrive by having compassion, acknowledging your context, and celebrating the humanness of developing your gentleness.