Katharine Brooks Ed.D.

Career Transitions


Calming Workplace Anxiety with Self-Compassion

A few minutes of seemingly simple phrases can improve your life.

Posted Aug 09, 2013

We’ve all had those days at work: you’re running late, you miss a deadline, you’re supposed to be at a meeting and you’re stuck in traffic; your boss criticizes your work. Or maybe that’s not you: maybe your work day actually goes fine, but you pressure yourself to be perfect, to be better, or to do more. Somehow you feel that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, it’s not enough. You may have a nonstop internal chatterbox judging your behavior, thoughts and even your feelings. So you’re not only feeling angry, anxious or sad at work, but now you’re judging those feelings as somehow inappropriate.

Whether arising from inside or outside, chronic anxiety takes a toll on your happiness, your productivity, your energy level, etc. And if you have chronic anxiety you can feel like you’re always on a treadmill or on high-alert just waiting for the next disaster. Treatments abound for dealing with anxiety, from medications to cognitive behavioral training, but one approach which many individuals are finding deceptively simple, easy and helpful is called “metta,” loving-kindness, or self-compassion meditation.

Self-compassion meditation helps you connect to your feelings, and demonstrate kindness toward them. When we’re anxious, the tendency is to move into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode: to run away from the situation, argue with our feelings (or with someone else) or get stuck and unable to move. Self-compassion meditation with its emphasis on simple, repetitive comforting phrases, encourages you to sit with your anxiety and show compassion toward yourself the way you would if a friend was experiencing it. Taking your compassion a step further, the meditations expand to include friends and loved ones, a stranger in your midst, and, if you can, someone you don't like or are angry at.

Self-compassion meditation recognizes that all of us are suffering at times, and that all of us deserve compassion. We all want the same basic things in life: to be happy and healthy and safe. Wishing this for ourselves, and then branching out and wishing it for loved ones, and ultimately for everyone creates a calmer state of mind and encourages a feeling of connection to others.

Here, then, is the basic technique:

Sit comfortably, close your eyes or simply soften your focus. Focus on your breathing and picture yourself sitting, as if you’re looking at yourself from the outside. Notice any physical tension or stress. Just notice it. It’s OK if you can’t “fix” it. Notice any painful emotions you might be feeling such as worrying or anger. Then, calmly and gently say to yourself:

“May I be happy. May I be strong. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.”

Note that these are not affirmations: you’re not stating that you are currently feeling any of these emotions; you are simply wishing them for yourself. Simply repeat the phrases over and over like a mantra to calm and soothe your mind.

Feel free to create your own phrases that fit your life situation. Dr. Christopher Germer recommends the following phrases, “May I be safe. May I be peaceful. May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am.”

If your mind wanders, just return to focusing on your breath. And keep repeating the phrases.

Consider moving to the next step: try saying the same phrases for a loved one, a friend, or anyone you’re close to (even your pet if that’s who you feel closest to). You can just substitute the person’s name in your phrases as in, “May _____  be strong. May _____ be happy.” If it helps, you can include yourself with the person, as in “May _____ and I be strong. May _____ and I be happy.”

Now try moving your thoughts to a co-worker or a neutral person at work (perhaps someone you see but don’t know his/her name such as a doorman, janitor, or the vendor who sells you your sandwich at lunch) and repeat the same phrases. Finally, if you can (and it’s OK if you can’t) try including the person who challenges you at work in the same thoughts. “May (my boss) be well. May (my boss) be happy.”

Repeating these thoughts gently and without any goal or intention will gradually calm your mind, and help you feel closer to others. Studies have shown a variety of benefits from mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation—from increasing self-awareness, empathy, and concentration at work, to reducing stress and anxiety—and even eliminating chronic back pain.

You can practice self-compassion meditation in any setting. Try it before or after a difficult meeting. If you are teaching or giving a presentation, try it for a few minutes before you greet the audience. Sitting on the subway as you go home from a long day at work, try repeating the phrases and include the person sitting next to you. “May this person be safe. May this person be well.” Don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling closer to that person, or slightly happier for sending kind thoughts to others. Just remember, you repeat these phrases internally; there is no need to speak them out loud in a public place, and you don’t need to close your eyes.

I’ve only touched the surface here, but if you’ve experienced the suffering that comes from anxiety, and you felt momentary relief through saying the phrases, here are some great resources to learn more:

My favorite book on the topic is The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions written by Dr. Christopher Germer and Sharon Salzberg.  Dr. Germer is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and a founding member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Sharon Salzberg is a best-selling author and Buddhist meditation instructor.

In his book, Dr. Germer describes a patient who, when feeling anxious, would simply repeat to himself. “Just afraid. Just afraid.” And then he would repeat the mindful self-compassion phrases. Notice how the emphasis is on acknowledging the emotions—not escaping into fight or flight.

Dr. Germer also has an excellent website: Mindful Self-Compassion which has meditation mp3’s you can download to your iPod for playing any time. And here’s an interesting interview with Dr. Germer about why accepting pain may heal you.

One of my other favorite resources for information about meditation in general as well as loving kindness meditation is Tara Brach. Her website is a virtual goldmine of resources and information, including excellent weekly podcasts you can download to your iTunes.

Dr. Kristen Neff conducts research at The University of Texas at Austin on the effects of self-compassion. Here’s her Psychology Today blog post about the power of self-compassion and explains the difference between developing self-compassion versus self-esteem. Here’s her TedTalk on the subject.

Other sample meditations can be found at:

Loving Kindness Meditation for College Students

Sharon Salzberg BeliefNet

Jack Kornfield Meditation

And, finally, if you think your children might benefit from practicing self-compassion, here’s a nice blog post about using loving kindness meditation with them.

©2013 Katharine S. Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Image credit: Chase Alias “Empty Vessel” in FlickrCreativeCommons