In this issue: Spring 2020

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Self-Compassion: A Powerful Tool for Emerging Leaders

There’s a common misconception that self-compassion is a sign of weakness—one of those soft, fluffy fads to ignore.

In her keynote address at Daniels’ inaugural Emerging Leaders Conference in May 2019, Kristin Neff, PhD, dispelled this and other myths about self-compassion with evidence from her research.

Self-compassion, “being kind and supportive of yourself when you’re struggling,” is a powerful sign of strength, for example, and the No. 1 predictor of a person’s ability to cope during tough times, Neff explained at the conference, which was hosted by the Department of Management. This outcome was measured in soldiers. Those who were more self-compassionate were less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder—regardless of the severity of combat they saw.

Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, author of “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself” and co-developer of the internationally acclaimed Mindful Self-Compassion training program, pioneered the first research studies in the field of self-compassion 15 years ago.

“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give a good friend. It’s using what we already know how to do, but turning that inward for ourselves,” she said. Neff shared that several personal struggles led her to mindfulness meditation and, eventually, self-compassion. Self-esteem was previously regarded as the optimum psychological state. But self-esteem is a judgment of one’s self-worth that’s contingent on achievement or superiority over others. Pursuing self-esteem can lead to social comparison, bullying, narcissism and perfectionism.

“We inevitably feel inadequate,” Neff said, since the human experience is imperfect. “Self-compassion is a great alternative to self-esteem because the sense of self-worth isn’t contingent on success or failure. You feel good because you are a human being deserving of kindness like everyone else.”

Neff also said people who are more self-compassionate are rated as being more caring, more connected to others, better able to take responsibility for their mistakes, more motivated, and less angry and controlling. It’s a healthy psychological state that also helps create calm, increased happiness, and decreased depression and chronic pain.

“The more inner resources you have, the more resources you have to meet others’ needs,” she said. “And if you care about yourself, you’ll want to meet your goals and succeed. It’s a powerful mind state to cultivate.” Neff said kindness, common humanity and mindfulness are the three main components of self-compassion.

The formula looks like being present with whatever is happening in the moment without judgment, acknowledging struggle, treating ourselves kindly by asking, ‘what do I need to help myself in this moment?,’ and recognizing that failure is a normal part of life that all people experience. Neff also shared that many effective social justice leaders—Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.—were fiercely self-compassionate, with a balance of feminine yin and masculine yang qualities that yielded care and concern with forceful action to alleviate suffering.

For business leaders, self-compassion provides resilience during challenges, decreases stress and burnout, increases creativity and wisdom, and allows leaders to recognize and learn from their mistakes without shame.

“When there’s a difficult situation, you’re stronger with an ally in your head than an enemy in your head,” Neff said. “As a culture, we believe that self-compassion will make us weak. It’s exactly the opposite.”

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