Written by Karen E. Mosier
Everyone knows the feeling that comes with making a mistake or failing to meet others’ expectations. These feelings can be heightened when we do not meet our own expectations and judge ourselves too harshly. When failures occur, this relentless self monitoring, behavior correction, negative self-talk and self-criticism can be counterproductive. We need to make room for self-compassion if we want to move beyond our mistakes and toward future successes.
Here are some key ways to practice self-compassion at work:
1. Reverse the Golden Rule: Treating others the way we would like to be treated is the golden rule. But have you ever tried applying this rule to yourself? Make it a practice going forward to give yourself the same consideration, kindness and room for improvements that you give to your professional colleagues.
e.g., Rebecca took a new position as a Research Manager. It was a nice career change for her. She had been involved in financial reporting for the last ten years so there was definite overlap with her skill set in her new job. To her horror, only three months into her new position, she made a horrible mistake. She had inadvertently let the ethics approval expire on one of her researchers’ grants and his fund was temporarily suspended. Rebecca was mortified and she had a hard time forgiving herself for making such a large error. She also knew that if the mistake had been made by one of her coworkers then she would never judge them so harshly. It was then Rebecca realized that she was being too hard on herself and that she had learned a great lesson. Going forward, she would put measures in place so that none of her researchers’ ethics approvals would expire unnoticed and ample reminders would be sent in advance to remind them to renew their AUPs.
2. Ask for help when you need it: Asking for help can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, but all we need help from time to time. Learning new tips and ways of doing things from our fellow coworkers can save us heartache and stress in the long run. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. We each have our strengths and maybe you can return the favor down the road about some process or software that one of your office mates isn’t familiar with.
e.g., Ruth was collecting metrics for the undergraduate education program. There was so much information to be collected that her head almost spun. She kept it neatly in a word document. Her system worked nicely for the first year or so but over time the document became quite bulky and cumbersome. Ruth began to dread the yearly reporting. When her boss began asking for more updates with varying time reporting periods and for different instructors, she was soon at her wit’s end. She was ready to quit and look for another job. Ruth, in a last ditch attempt to figure out some way to do this more easily, approached Bev, who was very efficient and also approachable, and asked her for advice. Bev was a genius when it comes to using Excel. She showed Ruth how to convert all the information into Excel with only a little effort. Now it didn’t matter what the reporting period was or how many instructors were included in the report, she could easily pull it up. Bev helped Ruth improve some of her other processes for collecting metrics as well. Ruth was so glad that she had asked Bev for her help.
3. Treat yourself like a friend: Don’t hold yourself to higher standards than you would impose on co-workers or friends. If you are struggling to understand why you failed miserably in a current situation, step outside yourself and consider how you might help a friend in the same circumstances. Visualize how you would talk to your friend, the actions you would take and give yourself some much-needed perspective.
e.g., Kim had been at her new job for 18 months. Being a finance manager gave her the autonomy she was seeking. She couldn’t have been happier. She was on top of things. There were many processes that she had put in place over the last year. Kim was totally unprepared when an angry faculty member and graduate student showed up in her office. Kim had inadvertently missed the deadline for payroll so the student didn’t get paid. The young man didn’t have any money for food or rent. The faculty member decided to pay for his expenses and then the student could pay him back after he got his first cheque. Kim was embarrassed and angry with herself for failing so badly. To reframe her thinking, she asked herself ‘if my colleague Jane had made the mistake, would I understand that she hadn’t been in her position very long and mistakes happen?’ Would she cut Jane some slack? Kim decided right then and there to forgive herself because no one is perfect. Immediately she implemented a new process so that in the future, hopefully, no student would ever go unpaid in her department.
To err is human. Give yourself a break today. Don’t expect to always be perfect or set such high standards for yourself that they can’t possibly be achieved. Use self-compassion to adopt a growth mindset. By practicing self-compassion, we can change our setbacks into greater successes. Remember, be kind to others but also remember to be kind to yourself.
1. Forbes. Michael Higgins. Self-Compassion at Work: Does It Lead to Success? April 27, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/04/27/self-compassion-at-work-does-it-lead-to-success/?sh=736180a56fb0
2. Workplace. Leah Weiss. How to Bring Self-Compassion to Work with You. March 15, 2018. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_bring_self_compassion_to_work_with_you
3. Harvard Business Review. Serena Chen. Give Yourself a Break: The Power of Self-Compassion. September, 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/09/give-yourself-a-break-the-power-of-self-compassion