Unexpected Setbacks & The Art of Self-Compassion

September 25, 2020 | Leadership & Management | Written by Mohamed Soliman

How do we usually react if a good friend tells us about a challenge they are going through? We will most likely offer support and encouragement. When you make a major mistake or suffer a loss, how do we perceive ourselves? We endorse our own self-criticism, shame, and ruminate about our poor judgment ("Why did this happen to me?"). If things go south in our lives, we become our own worst enemy.

Self-compassion is one approach we can pursue to deal with the perfectionist inside us. According to the self-compassion researchers Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, three components comprise self-compassion practice.

1- Mindfulness: This means being present in the here and now. This involves cultivating awareness of the emotions we feel, the food we eat, the weight of our body on the chair with it on, the task at hand or sounds around us, just to name a few of the daily activities that could be used to become more mindful of the moment.

2- Commonality: as humans, we all have setbacks in life. Knowing that one is not alone in this struggle makes us recognize that others have gone through the same thing and found a way out.

3- Kindness to the self: "Self soothing" is a well-studied method of emotional regulation. It can be in the form of using self-soothing smells, such as freshly baked food or candle scent, self-soothing sounds such as listening to a talk by a soothing voice, enjoying a specific genre of music, the sounds white noise machine or a personal water fountain, or self-soothing tastes such as a favorite beverage, gum or fresh fruits (just watch out for the calories!).

How can we cultivate self-compassion? Try the Self Compassion Scale and Self-Compassion Break developed by Kristin Neff.

Let's have an example. During the current pandemic, your business partner let you down. They decided to dissolve the business partnership in this critical time and there was no previous morning that this was in the making. You will justifiably feel angry (primary emotion) and a range of secondary and tertiary emotions such as betrayal.

1. Mindfulness: become aware of your own emotions. It could be “I feel angry. What kind of a human being is she?” or “He is such a devious person to break our business now. Doesn't he see how it will affect my life?”

2- Commonality: In the second step, you will acknowledge that other business partners might be going through the same tragedy under this economic pressure. You might even start to think about specific people in the same domain that you know where similar situations happened in the past and you noticed how it affected them emotionally and professionally. This will help you feel that you're not alone.

3- Kindness: if your best friend is seeking your advice on the situation, what would you tell them? Maybe you would say something on the lines of "It must be shocking!" and follow-up with "what options do you have that can help you survive this unexpected move?" you might suggest them doing something that they like to distract themselves from the immediate emotional impact of the unexpected betrayal.

Exercising self–compassion encourages us to see what we can change and accept what you can't. It makes you acknowledge that you're not alone in this setback. Simply put, self-compassion exercises are tools to discover how to help ourselves the same kind way we will help others who are going through a setback or a failure.