- Research shows that people who report high levels of thriving at work often practice self-compassion.
- Threats to our self-concept can quickly trigger the brain’s defense responses.
- Those who practice self-compassion are more likely to relinquish self-judgment and resist over-identification.
Have you ever wondered what people with the highest levels of well-being at work do differently from the rest of us? Are they more mentally tough? Do they drink more green smoothies? Or, are they meditation ninjas?
New research we recently gathered from more than 1,000 randomly selected Australian workers found that the biggest difference between those who reported high levels or low levels of thriving was the practice of self-compassion.
“Bumping up against our limitations, falling short of our ideals, dealing with setbacks, and owning our mistakes or failures can feel extremely stressful, especially at work,” explained psychologist Danielle Jacobs, co-founder of The Wellbeing Lab. “Self-compassion helps us to build the beliefs and skills we need to safely and successfully care for ourselves as we learn and grow alongside each other at work.”
For example, to help us feel socially safe at work, researchers have found our brains can fluctuate between self-serving distortions and being overly critical and cruelly judgmental of ourselves. Unfortunately, over time these self-protective approaches have been found to leave us riddled with insecurities and haunted by the fear that eventually others will discover we’re “not good enough,” “not smart enough,” and “not likable enough.”
As a result, the slightest threat to our self-concept can quickly trigger our brain’s threat-defense responses, causing us to fight ourselves (more self-criticism), flee from others (isolation), or freeze (ruminate and over-identify). But the more we berate ourselves, withdraw from others, or stew in self-doubt, the more vulnerable, anxious, and stressed we feel and the less likely we are to thrive.
In contrast, the study of Australian workers found that those who practiced self-compassion were significantly more likely to:
- Relinquish self-judgment. Instead of berating themselves about what failures they were when things weren't going well, they acknowledged they were not where they wanted to be yet and encouraged themselves to keep trying. They were kind to themselves, rather than self-critical.
- Reject isolation. Instead of hiding themselves away when they made mistakes so others wouldn't witness their embarrassment, they were vulnerable enough to ask for help and support from others. They accepted that they were perfectly imperfect just like everyone else and used this knowledge to confidently connect with others.
- Resist over-identification. Instead of becoming overwhelmed when faced with difficult challenges, they mindfully sought out opportunities to build on their strengths — the things they were good at and enjoyed doing — as they learned and grew. They were mindful of how their feelings impacted how they approached their work.
As a result, these workers not only reported higher levels of wellbeing, but also higher levels of engagement, performance, and job satisfaction.
“Self-compassion practices helped to lower workers' levels of anxiety and stress,” explained Danielle. “They also helped to promote people’s levels of wellbeing by making it more likely they would continue playfully experimenting with different approaches until they found what worked best for them.”
For example, studies by Dr. Kristin Neff and her colleagues have found that these self-soothing behaviors activate our brain’s caregiving and self-awareness systems, making it easier for us to believe we’re capable and worthy, and making us less self-conscious, less likely to compare ourselves to others, and less likely to feel insecure. They have also been found to be an effective means of enhancing our motivation, performance, and resilience so we can make informed choices about when it is safe to persist, when we need to try a different path, and when to let go.
How are you practicing self-compassion at work?