Why we can’t transform without self-compassion | Leadership Blog

One of the greatest obstacles of personal growth is the ‘inner judge’ in our mind: a voice of self-criticism that constantly influences our life through opinions, advice, warnings, suggestions, beliefs, evaluations, and admonishments about all aspects of our inner life and behaviour. The function of the inner judge is two-fold: it keeps us away from what it considers to be dangerous or unmanageable parts of ourselves, and it directs us toward whatever ideals it feels will make us an acceptable, successful person.

Our inner judge has often been conditioned early in life as our parents, teachers and other significant authority figures in our life corrected or punished us, at times with good intentions and at times as a consequence of their own trauma and shadow. These external influences often generate a belief that if I’m not self-critical and tough on myself, I will not grow and improve. Unfortunately, this strategy is often short-lived and further activates our reactive brain, reinforcing our destructive patterns.

In order to grow, we have to recognise our avoidant behaviours and deal with them. This requires us to neutralise our inner judge.
Along with curiosity, the best way to neutralise the inner judge is through self-compassion. As I like to put it, truth and compassion are blood brothers. Curiosity brings us to truth, and truth can be confronting. When we view some truth inside ourselves with judgement, facing truth becomes an emotionally unsafe process. Self-compassion calms the fast brain, opening up neural pathways to the slow brain and creating a world of new options and opportunities rather than remaining stuck in past algorithms.

We can only see and deal with truth if it is emotionally safe to do so. This safety depends on self-compassion and access to our slower brain. Self-compassion is holding ourselves in a warm and open-hearted embrace, feeling our suffering, grieving for it and supporting ourselves in it. Self-compassion is a voice of deep care and concern, non-judgemental and kind.

Sheila Frame, President of the Americas for the pharmaceutical company Amryt Pharma, captured the essence of self-compassion elegantly when she told me, ‘I really wish I could help people understand that they are enough. That’s the real beauty of inner work — to realise that you are enough. We don’t have to rationalise or defend. We can be comfortable with and accept ourselves. And when we mess up, we can always own it and begin again.’

Being truly honest with ourselves isn’t about seeing our ‘badness’ and punishing ourselves for it; rather, it’s about seeing our basic goodness and forgiving ourselves for our ignorance and our conditioned reactions. We are far more motivated to be and do good by self-compassion than by shame and self-criticism.

Steven Baert, former Chief People Officer and Executive Committee Member of Novartis, also told me, ‘There needs to be a loving side of self-awareness. Otherwise, it can become judgement, which then becomes self-punishment. And once we start punishing ourselves, we start moving away from self-awareness, because why do we want to do that to ourselves? If self-awareness just leads to guilt and self-judgement, we won’t do it. We have to be honest with ourselves. But to do that, we have to love and care for ourselves as well.’

Many research studies have shown that, in contrast with self-critical people, self-compassionate people:

  • feel greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating moral transgressions
  • are more motivated to improve personal weaknesses
  • are more likely to take responsibility for their past mistakes
  • are more likely to set new goals for themselves after failing to meet previous goals.

Researcher Kristin Neff observes, ‘Self-compassion is not the same as being easy on ourselves. It’s a way of nurturing ourselves so that we can reach our full potential.’ Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach points out in her book Radical Acceptance, ‘Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.’

With curiosity, we uncover our unconscious fears, attachments and assumptions. With self-compassion, we help ourselves accept and bear the fear and pain that arise when we see and own the truth of what is driving our dysfunctional behaviour. Our greater emotional regulation allows the slow brain to ‘see and regulate’ the fast brain. Now we are prepared to get clear on what’s really important to us, and to create an action plan for aligning our behaviour with our values.