Want to be a compassionate leader? Start with self-compassion.

By Brett Beasley

Being kind to yourself empowers you to grow and give.


What if there was a practice that could reduce your fear, calm your anxiety, and buffer your stress as you struggle through the COVID-19 crisis?

In fact, there is such a treatment, and it is called "self-compassion." Researchers began to discover the benefits of self-compassion over a decade ago, and during the pandemic the concept has become more widely known. Universities and other organizations have offered self-compassion events, tips, and trainings to help students and employees cope. And initial results suggest these efforts have paid off. Studies performed since the beginning of the pandemic have shown that while self-compassion can't fight a virus, it is surprisingly effective in helping us build resilience and find greater mental and physical wellbeing overall.

So what holds us back from practicing self-compassion?

Studies suggest that while leaders—and values-driven leaders in particular—have much to gain from self-compassion, they may hesitate to practice it.

The reason is simple: We believe we need to be hard on ourselves in order to motivate ourselves to become more ethical. However, research shows that the opposite is true: Self-compassion actually provides more motivation for moral improvement.

To see why this is the case, we need to understand more about what self-compassion is—and what it is not.

Self-Compassion is Not Self-Esteem

Decades ago, many psychologists believed that self-esteem was the linchpin of mental health. Many of them suggested that we should aim to boost our self-esteem directly.

These efforts may have contributed to what some have called a "narcissism epidemic." And in addition, they can embolden some of our worst tendencies. They tend to reinforce the idea that we do not need to improve our character because we are already better than average. And they can also encourage us to see ourselves as uniquely special by putting others down.

Self-compassion, however, is very different from self-esteem in three important ways:

1. Mindfulness.

Whereas we might seek to boost our self-esteem by ignoring our failings or explaining them away, self-compassion begins with mindfully acknowledging our failures and the suffering they cause.

2. Common humanity.

Instead of seeing ourselves as uniquely special and different from others, we should zoom out and see our struggles as human struggles. Just like others, we are deserving of kindness, even when we make mistakes or come up short.

3. Self-kindness.

Instead of getting stuck in a rut of harsh self-criticism, we should insist on having a kind and caring attitude toward ourselves. This does not mean we are letting ourselves off the hook. It means we are seeing our weaknesses for what they are instead of denying them or exaggerating them.

Self-Compassion Enables Self-Improvement

In one influential study of self-compassion, researchers at UC Berkeley found that far from reducing our motivation to do better and be better, self-compassion increased self-improvement motivation across the board.

The researchers recruited study participants who had experienced some form of personal failure or setback. They helped the participants practice self-compassion and compared the participants' motivations to other groups who did not receive any help or who were asked to focus on self-esteem. Self-compassion helped participants recognize their ability to change. It helped participants who had wronged someone find the motivation to change their ways and to make amends. And it also helped participants find the motivation to improve in other ways—for example, after failing at a test.

These findings, the researchers say, reveal a paradox: "personal failure may make people more motivated to improve themselves." But in order to harness the power of our failures, we need self-compassion to help us identify them, see them for what they are, and recognize that we have the power to do better.

Self-compassion helps rid us of the shame, not guilt. "With guilt," Taya Cohen and her colleagues explain, "the focus is on one’s behavior ('I did a bad thing'), whereas, with shame, the focus is on one’s self ('I’m a bad person')." Guilt-prone people are an asset. They are likely to recognize bad behavior and feel a strong motivation to make it right. Shame-prone people operate differently. When they make a mistake, they tend to see themselves as bad. Rather than seeking to make amends, they tend to withdraw from the situation altogether.

Put it in Practice

Fail better.

Failure is inevitable—especially during difficult times. Leaders are experiencing "moral stress" due to all of the competing demands that are placed upon them. Start by being realistic. Expect that you will fail sometimes. Perfection is never an option, but progress always is.

Take a self-compassion break.

The simplest way to practice self-compassion is to focus on the three elements described above. Mindfully take notice of your failures and hardships. See them as part of a common human struggle. And resolve to approach yourself with kindness. This simple practice, which takes only a few minutes, is enough to experience tangible effects. [Audio guide.]

Befriend yourself.

One key insight of self-compassion research is that we should simply show ourselves the same kindness we would show to a good friend. Experts recommend imagining and/or writing about how we would treat a friend who was in our situation. Doing so can help us gain the right perspective—one that's balanced rather than too harsh or too indulgent.

Self-compassion research can save us from a too-narrow view of motivation, one that says we improve only by being harsh and uncompromising with ourselves and others. By embracing a broader view, we can help build a kinder world. And we can start by being kind to ourselves.

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