How Being Kind to Yourself Helps You Keep Your Edge

Author: Casey Gale       

Everyone is hard on themselves at times, especially when it comes to our jobs. And those who plan and execute business events may encounter even greater-than-average opportunities to engage in self-criticism. After all, it’s impossible to make everyone at an event happy and clients, attendees, and colleagues usually aren’t shy about pointing out the things that they don’t like. “The industry and my specific department is full of perfectionists who have very little forgiveness,” was one answer when we asked readers to tell us what they liked least about their jobs in Convene‘s most recent Salary Survey. Another response: “The self-imposed stress of pleasing 100 percent of my meeting attendees.” 

Complicating all of this is the fact that we all have an inner “negativity bias” — we are hard-wired to pay more attention to our perceived flaws and missteps, according to research cited in a recent New York Times story, “Why You Should Stop Being So Hard on Yourself.

That bias is the brain’s way of monitoring our behavior and teaching us to learn right from wrong — but when we dwell on the negative for too long, it jeopardizes our mental and physical health. “It can lead to ruminative thoughts that interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging,” Richard Davidson, Ph.D., told the Times.

High levels of self-criticism can actually kill motivation, as we start devoting more time focusing on our mistakes than aiming for future successes. At that point, self-criticism doesn’t push us to better ourselves — it only amplifies our failures.  

Happily, there is a proven way to manage the critical voices in our heads — through practicing self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

You might think that being hard on yourself is what keeps you at the top of your game, but, in fact, “the No. 1 barrier to self-compassion is fear of being complacent and losing your edge,” Neff told The New York Times. “And all the research shows that’s not true. It’s just the opposite.”

How do we learn to love ourselves when we’re so used to beating ourselves up? Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Judson Brewer, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness and associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said the first step is simply giving it a try.

“Any type of practice that helps us stay in the moment and notice what it feels like to get caught up,” helps us be kinder to ourselves, he said in the Times article.

Mindfulness goes a long way toward helping us reshape our thoughts. We all make mistakes, and we can learn to trump our negative thoughts with more compassionate reminders that we’re all just trying our best. In order for this to stick, Brewer said it’s crucial to make a long-term commitment to self-love. Our brains are always looking for what he calls the “BBO — the bigger better offer.” If we train our brains to realize it is less painful to forgive ourselves and move on from mistakes than punish ourselves for it, it will learn over time to be a bit nicer.

“All you have to do is think of going to a friend,” Neff said. “If you said, ‘I’m feeling fat and lazy and I’m not succeeding at my job,’ and your friend said, ‘Yeah, you’re a loser. Just give up now. You’re disgusting,’ how motivating would that be?”

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