The Case for Compassion

The Case for Compassion

I watched my boss hurriedly hit the mute button. We were onboard a floating production storage and offloading (FPSO), floating in the Atlantic Ocean, and dialed into a large international call with operations leaders from around the world.

“Welp, I messed that one up! Yikes.” He chuckled and shook his head. I stood by his desk, transfixed, watching in awe as he let his faux pas roll right off his back.

In general, I would not have called this gentleman a particularly relaxed person. Being an offshore installation manager (OIM) requires a certain level of rigorous discipline, attention to detail, and unwaveringly high standards. And, yet, this man had just made a massively embarrassing mistake on a call with his peers and leaders from across the globe, and he just shrugged it off. I stared at him as if seeing a new species of human. It had never occurred to me that this type of response was an option.

If that had been me, I’d likely have recovered in the moment, only to replay the scene throughout the following hours, days or even weeks, beating myself up over it and imagining how I could have handled it differently. In comparison, my manager’s approach seemed so much more efficient. Over a decade later, I may not recall what my boss’s mistake was, but I do remember the very instant that I realized my habit of self-criticism wasn’t the only way of operating.

The topic of self-criticism comes up continually in my work as a coach and my role as a mentor. Typically, the women I work with are navigating high-stakes, male-dominated environments. They are the achievement-oriented go-getters who have defied the odds and the naysayers, eschewed the societal biases, and forged ahead toward their own goals. They have track records of success and histories of overcoming adversity. Still, the role of self-criticism looms large for many of these women. In fact, it’s not unusual for my clients to criticize themselves for being self-critical – very meta, indeed.

One thing we will not do in this column is demonize self-criticism because that’s counterproductive. As we will explore further, one of the best antidotes for the harm of self-criticism is curiosity, and we’ll be employing that approach from the start. We’ll tackle how to recognize it when it occurs, how to interrupt the pattern, and what healthier options we can substitute.

What’s Happening

First, I want to define the word “criticize.” We normally think of this as synonymous with giving negative feedback or finding fault. That’s one use of the word; however, Merriam-Webster’s first definition is “to consider the merits and demerits of and judge accordingly,” i.e., to evaluate. It’s easy to see how positive behaviors such as self-reflection and striving for improvement can morph when taken to the extreme, turning into negative self-talk and downright unkindness toward ourselves.

Whenever I’m working with someone to change an unwanted habit, pattern or behavior, I ask, “How has this served you in the past?” Sometimes this question can be a bit surprising. If we’re trying to rid ourselves of a behavior, why would we focus on how it has benefited us? It turns out that most of our habits endure because they’ve provided some sort of benefit in the past; otherwise, they would have faded away long ago. So, without recognizing the benefits of our habit, we’re ill-equipped to find a healthier, more suitable and sustainable way of operating.

Self-criticism, in this case, may have kept us safe during a volatile childhood. It may have helped us excel in school and at work by pushing us to try harder and strive for improvement. It may be our way of replicating the voices of parents, teachers, managers and other authority figures who used harsh, critical language with us in the past.

The Case for Compassion

For neurodivergent folks, we may have learned to mask in order to mimic neurotypical interactions, or adopted a stance of hypervigilance to catch any mistakes or oversights due to our ADHD or dyslexia.

For those of us with underrepresented or marginalized identities and demographics, it may feel as though we’re working under a spotlight and it can be critical that we identify our own weaknesses or flaws before they are weaponized against us. It can feel somewhat empowering to be the first to notice your own flaws and stay ahead of others’ judgment.

These are all understandable sources for a self-critical inner narrative. Yet, discerning how our perceived shortcomings may impact our goals is quite different from the internalized shame that so often accompanies self-criticism. So, how do we tell the difference between the healthy self-awareness of a growth mindset and the detrimental rumination of self-criticism?

We can start by examining the utility and tone of our inner narrative. Here are some clues to look for:

Self-Criticism Red Flags

  • Harsh or hurtful tone
  • Spiraling, looping or catastrophizing thoughts
  • The phrase “I should have…”
  • Backward-looking conclusions about our self-worth

Self-Reflection Green Flags

  • Kind and compassionate tone
  • Evolving understanding and deeper insights
  • The phrase, “I could have…”
  • Forward-looking takeaways for growth and improvement

In short, self-criticism and rumination keep us stuck and hold us back. Self-reflection moves us forward and propels us toward growth. I often think of self-criticality as being similar to frictional losses. The energy is getting dissipated, but it’s primarily slowing us down rather than propelling us onward.

The Case for Compassion

Unfortunately, the impact of negative self-talk goes beyond inefficiency. Sometimes, it can cause us to stall out entirely, frozen in place. Habitual self-criticism can also undermine our confidence and willingness to take healthy risks. If failure will entail a barrage of harsh words, then the stakes are higher. This is essentially the inverse of a “fail fast” mentality in which failures are necessary learnings on our way to success. The faster we tackle them and process them, the better equipped we are for success.

When our default way of speaking to ourselves is harsh, it can also make it harder to forge human connection, either because we inadvertently put pressure on others to reassure us, or because our critical voice and impossibly high standards carry over into our expectations of others.

What’s the Alternative?

Thankfully, there are a multitude of ways to counteract self-criticality. Before we cover what works, let’s talk about a few tactics to avoid. As discussed, beating ourselves up over it simply compounds the problem and accelerates the shame spiral. Another ineffective tactic is telling yourself to “just let it go” or dismissing your feelings as “too much.” These are simply different flavors of self-criticism. Rather than build up our confidence and agency, these messages teach us to doubt ourselves.

Instead, we can approach our critical voice with some compassion and curiosity. Let’s face it, she’s there to protect us. She’s trying to keep us safe and help us avoid bad outcomes. Rather than shut her out or silence her, we can try to understand what our inner dialogue and emotions are telling us. As we say in coaching, “Emotions are data.” What are they telling us?

Author and TEDx speaker Michael Bungay Stanier suggests a quick exercise when faced with a frustrating situation. He recommends throwing our hands up and exclaiming, “Well, isn’t that interesting!” Whether you’re faced with a missed flight or a missed promotion, a failed exam or a failed sales pitch, a deep breath and exclamation of fascination can be incredibly effective in halting an impending doom spiral. It can also be helpful to strengthen our playfulness muscle and learn to take ourselves less seriously by inviting some humor into our challenges. Activities like yoga or indoor rock climbing can give us a space to try new things, fall down, chuckle at ourselves and try again. Some folks have found improv classes or clay throwing to be other avenues to embrace exploration and imperfection.

In many cases, it can be helpful to gain additional perspective and create some distance from our challenges. If we visualize rumination as going “down and in,” then creating distance looks like going “up and out.” We can look to a trusted coach, mentor, therapist or friend to talk through our thoughts and reframe our thinking. (Caveat: This is less effective if our friends invite us to dwell on the negative or co-ruminate.)

We can also process thoughts on our own using journaling, or the “expressive writing protocol” pioneered by Dr. James Pennebaker. By incorporating “distanced self-talk” into this processing, we can gain even greater perspective and room for compassion. This entails referring to ourselves in the third person and recounting experiences as an external observer. To level this up even further, secure a photo of yourself as a small child looking adorable and unquestionably deserving of compassion and love. When you look at the child in the photo, consider how you would want her to be spoken to.

Lastly, determine whether your base physical needs are being met. Are you getting enough rest? Are you hydrated? When’s the last time you felt sun on your skin or a breeze on your face? Do you need a nutritious snack? If you were a houseplant, how would you be faring right now? Fatigue, dehydration and hunger can amp up our stress response. Exercise produces endorphins and momentum for action. Extensive research has demonstrated that access to green spaces and the outdoors positively impact our mental health and focus (see attention restoration theory). Something as simple as petting a cat can bring us out of our rumination and back into our physical body. Plus, cats are usually experts at modeling self-acceptance and deservedness.

It Takes Time

Building new habits and ways of speaking to ourselves takes time. Many of us were not taught to treat ourselves with kindness. We’ve likely benefited from being hard on ourselves. And yet we can still strive for greatness by inviting more curiosity, compassion, playfulness and humor. We can speak to ourselves the way we would want our loved ones to be spoken to, and we can focus our energy on forward growth rather than rumination. Sometimes, we will slip back into our old ways of speaking to ourselves, but that’s okay, because it’s another chance to show ourselves compassion and forgiveness.

Author profile

Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin.

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