Foundation Habit 1: Activate self-compassion
NB: This article forms part of a series about habits for happiness and living your best life. The initial articles focus on three foundation habits to set the framework for 12 habits to follow.
When we make a mistake, we fear this damages our success in life or work. Whether it’s a gut bombing failure in a task or process we hope to succeed in, or a minor mess up, we berate ourselves. We may face criticism from someone we love or from a work colleague or boss. What hurts is our self-criticism and rumination over what we should have done.
I know this from my life of attempting to do things perfectly and realising it’s impossible. I feel more compassion for people I love when they make a mistake. But for my failings, I find it hard to let it go and free myself from guilt or worry.
The key: Use self-compassion as an act of your will. Fire up self-compassion. It’s a conscious mental action you take. To give credit to an expert: check out the work of Kristin Neff.
Imagine you’ve set a goal at work to use a streamlined approach to caring for your clients or patients. It’s a clear action plan to follow, but this day you are swamped and overloaded with tasks and mental lists. You miss a step in your workflow and a client is unhappy with the outcome. Your supervisor knows about it and gives you a look and a word of dissatisfaction. What do you do?
Our natural response to stress
In a moment of threat or stress, it’s normal to have an initial emotional reaction to the negative event . Our reactions include distress, fear, or a need to defend our actions or mistakes. It’s what we do next that matters.
Researchers at the School of Psychology and Speech pathology at Curtin University in Australia found that, we need to regulate negative emotions to be compassionate with ourselves. This works in reverse too; when we are self-compassionate, this helps regulate our emotions in hard times. .
What does this all mean? When we make mistakes, self-compassion and regulating our emotions work together in both directions. How do we do this?
The benefit of pausing
If we stay quiet, pause, and have time to think about our mistake, we allow ourselves to recover. This helps us choose thoughts and actions that calm our emotions, clarify the problem, and soften the blow of reactions from people around us.
The solution to this is self compassion.
What is self-compassion and how does it help when we mess up?
Self-Compassion is a way of relating to ourselves in three areas:
- Being aware of our suffering
- Treating ourselves with kindness and understanding
- Relating to our own stress as part of normal human life .
Self compassion is not a fuzzy feeling of sweetness toward ourselves. It’s an act we choose and requires courage. The courage to accept ourselves as we are. We need a specific action plan of self-kindness that we can carry into later pains and trials.
3 ways self compassion helps you when you make a mistake
- Self-compassion provides psychological benefits such as happiness, contentedness and coping adaptively to negative events in our lives. How? When we react kindly to our mistakes, we stay calm and ruminate less on how we’ve failed.
- We develop more concern, forgiveness and understanding of the pain other people experience because we’ve been through a failure ourselves. This helps our relationships to grow in warmth and love.
- Stopping to offer ourselves compassion lowers negative emotions and anxiety. Why? we accept our mistake as a normal part of living and we move on with confidence as we tackle our next project 
3 ways to build the habit of self compassion (and stay in the mindset consistently)
When we actively initiate self-compassion, we create peaceful and successful lives as people of worth and value, despite our mistakes.
- Develop the belief that self-compassion as an action you take in stress. This is especially helpful if you receive criticism from others about who you are and what you have done . This could include a mistake you make at work that links to your credentials or reputation. When criticism or fear of criticism take hold of your emotions, choose the habit of being kind to yourself. If there’s something you can do to rectify your mistake, that’s great, but apply the no-guilt approach to break free from fear and doubt.
- Activate the process of regulating your emotions. This may involve a bit of internal dialogue. You’re not a bad person, you’re not a failure. You are a human. You have emotions and weaknesses alongside your strengths and talents. Perfection is boring. Like a colour wheel, the full spectrum of colour is full and rich. Grey is dull on its own, but paced alongside colour, it gives contrast and beauty.
- Think about your colleagues and friends as a community of women aiming to improve the world, mistakes included. We are mothers and professionals with the pains and joys of work and home. At work we share tiredness, overwork, career targets and decision fatigue. At home we all face responsibilities, children’s needs and needs of our own. Our commonality brings us together. Joining a community of women such as this site for women in Medicine and Allied Health is a positive step in working together for our wellbeing and happiness.
Journal exercise and discussion question
Take five minutes to write about an event at work or home where you messed up, made a mistake and felt upset because of your actions. What led up to it? what did you do to improve the situation? try writing some statements to yourself to offer compassion and understanding?
Schaefer SM, Morozink Boylan J, van Reekum CM, Lapate RC, Norris CJ, Ryff CD, et al. (2013) Purpose in Life Predicts Better Emotional recovery from Negative Stimuli. PLoS ONE 8(11): e80329. doin:10. 1371/journal.pone.0080329
Finlay-Jones AL, Rees CS, Kane RT (2015) Self-Compassion, Emotion Regulation and Stress among Australian psychologists: testing and Emotion regulation Model of Self-Compassion using Structural Equation Modeling. PLoS ONE (10)7: e0133481. doi:10. 1371/journal.pone.0133481