Peer Voice Project

The (Self) Compassionate Leader, By Christina Carney


“In Buddhist teachings, compassion is described as a “quivering of the heart” in response to suffering. Compassion awakens as we allow ourselves to be touched by our shared vulnerability – our own, or that of another. It’s the medicine we most need to bring healing to our world.” Tara Brach

At some point in my personal transformation, I realized the importance of self-compassion, but I feel as though I’m just awakening to how important it really is. There’s something I’ve encountered in our culture that disturbs me every time I see it, or experience it. It shows up in many guises but at its core, it’s about motivating through fear and shame. I’ve also seen it show up in myself.

It looks a little like this: “That was stupid, what were you thinking, why can’t you ever get it right, you should have known better, you can’t do this, what were you thinking, you’ll mess it all up, you won’t get it right, you didn’t get it right”…and on and on. You get the idea.

Are you familiar with this litany? Does it work for you? Does it motivate you, or help you focus? It doesn’t for me. All it does is send me down a shame spiral that usually paralyzes me. But Dr. Kristin Neff has been doing research and it’s showing that it does more than that.

“When we criticize ourselves we’re tapping into the body’s threat-defense system (sometimes referred to as our reptilian brain). Among the many ways we can react to perceived danger, the threat-defense system is the quickest and most easily triggered. This means that self-criticism is often our first reaction when things go wrong.

Feeling threatened puts stress on the mind and body, and chronic stress can cause anxiety and depression, which is why habitual self-criticism is so bad for emotional and physical well-being. With self-criticism, we are both the attacker and the attacked.” –  Kristin Neff & Christopher Germer, “The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion, “

It’s easy to think that if we’re not critical, we’re not being honest but that’s not true. In fact, when self-compassion is coupled with honest self-awareness, it’s likely to be more effective. It’s difficult to do anything with self-awareness if we’re crushed, or defensive. The same is true when we interact with others. If our feedback is given with kindness it is more likely to be heard.

I think much of this ties back to our beliefs about vulnerability. Vulnerability is not a weakness, and it’s something we all share. Why pretend it doesn’t exist? Why the need to seem impervious to life’s challenges? To always ‘have it all together’? Here, we run head long into a wall of stigma, which is amplified for those in leadership. The irony is that it is in recognizing our shared vulnerability that we can find the stability and focus we seek. It is the practice of self-compassion that can get us there. “When we practice self-compassion, we are deactivating the threat-defense system and activating the care system. Oxytocin and endorphins are released, which helps reduce stress and increase feelings of safety and security. “ (Neff & Germer)

There is a need here for a deep narrative shift. The idea that fear, shame, and harsh criticism are the best ways to motivate ourselves and others is hurting us – the research shows it. And like all things, it starts with the Self. The next time you are hurting, or struggling can you try treating yourself as you would a loved one? When you see another’s vulnerability, can you see yourself in them and allow your heart to quiver -not just for the other, but for yourself as well?

As I seek to have a deeper understanding and experience of self-compassion, I invite you to do the same. Dr. Neff offers us a starting point, a place to begin:

“By simply asking the question “What do I need now?” you allow yourself a moment of self-compassion…”


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