The importance of compassion for others and myself was crystallized for me recently when I stepped into a new leadership role. Learning a new system, holding myself to a very high standard, and feeling challenged by both the people around me and the situation itself left me feeling self-critical and somewhat overwhelmed.
This is the case for many leaders in a new role – the very traits that may have gained us the opportunity can work against us as we grow into our new situation. My perfectionist, accomplishment-oriented side turned on me, making my anxiety worse. Without compassion for myself I had little compassion to offer others. My own harsh self-judgment made me irritable and critical of the people I was attempting to lead. It was a hard time for me and everyone around me.
I found the solution in the practice of self-compassion. Practicing compassion has allowed me (as well as the leaders with whom I work) to acknowledge the reality of what is happening in the moment – to take action with kind-awareness and move forward – breaking the cycle of avoidance. We all have a natural tendency to avoid or ignore difficulty and pain, but this habit will harden our hearts and increase our feelings of isolation. Suffering is part of the shared human condition, and I believe compassion –both for ourselves and others– is the remedy.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion. – Dalai Lama
What is Compassion exactly?
The experience of compassion starts with recognizing pain, anxiety, difficulty – what we will call “suffering.” If we ignore our own suffering or that of others, this indifference will prevent us from feeling compassion. Sometimes leaders do this out of fear, after all, who wants to feel pain? But we can’t experience compassion unless we overcome this instinct to withdraw and pull back.
The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.”
When we recognize suffering, and open our hearts to it, we begin to feel warmth, caring, and empathy. Just as we offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, we should offer this same kindness to ourselves in order to grow in compassion and incorporate it into our leadership approach.
Will practicing compassion make me a weak leader?
I know there are leaders who confuse compassion with being weak, a push-over, or (equally as bad) fear that if they are compassionate with themselves they will “let themselves off the hook.” Rather than being taken advantage of, skilled leaders can be compassionate and still hold themselves and others accountable for performance and give feedback. For example, one of my clients pointed out that the most compassionate thing she can do for someone who is failing in his or her role is to move them out of that role to allow them to find a place where they can be successful. Difficult decisions can (and should) be made with compassion.
Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people.
A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
Many of us, especially leaders under pressure to deliver results, are so focused on the goals in front of us that we don’t stop to pay attention to the suffering of others or ourselves. I have found in my own life that compassion takes cultivation and practice. I need to remind myself to stop and actually acknowledge suffering rather than push it away.
So, how do I become more compassionate?
I believe the best starting point is practicing self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff identifies the three elements of self-compassion as:
1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment: “Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.”
2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation: “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.”
3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification: “We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. Mindfulness requires that we not be ‘over-identified’ with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”
When you first begin to explore self-compassion you might uncover some painful feelings, due to the suppression and avoidance that have kept you from caring for and supporting yourself in the past. Treat yourself as you would a close friend, with understanding, patience, and acceptance.
Step into this journey knowing you are human, and that imperfection is the human condition. Be kind as well as honest with yourself.
I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness. – Mother Teresa
When you are ready to move forward…
I’ve created a guided Self-Compassion Practice which you can follow to increase your awareness and explore these elements further. You will find this on my website under Resources → Guided Meditation.
Finding Strength through Compassion
The anxiety level in the world is at a fever pitch right now. This leads people to hunker down and focus on their own survival, resort to an “us against them” mentality, and ignore the plight of others. Without compassionate leadership, situations spiral into increasing defensiveness and aggression. When we are operating out of self-centered fear it is impossible to have compassion for ourselves or others, which leads people to become even more aggressive in fighting for their wants and needs.
Compassion is not religious business, it is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival. – Dalai Lama
Far from being a source of weakness, compassion is a source of strength and resilience. Rather than pushing away our own pain and the suffering of others, it allows us to open up to greater support and growth. We can reverse the impact of fear, anxiety, and isolation. This creates an environment where we and the people, organizations, and communities in which we lead start to flourish and grow.
Isn’t that what we, as leaders, are striving to create?
People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou