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Learning curves: The role of self-compassion at work

September 12, 2022 - 15 min read


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Why beating yourself up isn’t the answer

Different approaches toward making a mistake

How to be more self-compassionate at work

Treat yourself how you treat others

Self-compassion vs. self-indulgence in the workplace

Self-compassion and leadership

Accepting your failures will lead you to fix them

“I made a mistake on that project, but I’m going to take ownership of it and work to fix it because it’s OK that I make mistakes. I’m only human.”

“I’ve had a hard time focusing at work lately, but I understand it’s because of the issues I’m dealing with at home. I’ll practice more self-care to comfort myself and not hesitate to ask for help.”

Let’s take a moment to admire these examples of self-compassion at work. It’s what understanding and believing in ourselves looks like, and we need more of it. Self-compassion welcomes growth and promotes resilience when we make mistakes. Rather than seeing our mistakes as complete failures, we see them as learning opportunities and treat ourselves with kindness.

But self-compassion at work takes practice — especially if we’re used to being harsh on ourselves. That’s where we come in. We’ll show you how to practice more self-compassion in the workplace and how being compassionate is one of the best qualities a leader possesses.


Why beating yourself up isn’t the answer

So what is self-compassion at work? It isn’t beating yourself up over every mistake you make. It’s common to be upset with yourself if you make a mistake, but diminishing your self-worth isn’t OK. Self-compassion at work happens when you allow yourself to be vulnerable as you reflect on your strengths and weaknesses.

You should display self-kindness with a growth mindset for the sake of your growth and well-being. Use your self-awareness to better understand yourself as a Whole Person and learn how to be a thoughtful employee.

Negative self-talk has zero benefits. Negativity won’t motivate you and isn’t productive for your personal growth. It undermines your efforts and skills, and lowers your self-esteem.

At work, you want to be confident in your abilities and feel like your contributions matter. But with negative self-talk, you may begin to see your self-worth or self-esteem plummet, which isn’t good for your mental health.

Plus, returning to work focused on negative emotions makes your work environment uncomfortable. You won’t feel excited if your workplace has become a home for self-judgment and criticism. It’s become a place for you to beat yourself up. That means it’s time to silence your inner critic.

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Different approaches toward making a mistake

Making mistakes is inevitable. It’s impossible to navigate life without failure, so dealing with mistakes is vital to maintaining our self-worth. Our options are self-compassion or self-criticism. We need to know the difference — and make the right choice.

Mindful self-compassion helps us deal with the consequences of our mistakes in productive and encouraging ways. It looks at our mistakes as a learning opportunity and welcomes self-improvement.

Research has found that self-compassion helps diminish depressive and anxious feelings and includes more encouraging thoughts. Plus, it fosters resilience and shows us that we can bounce back from our mistakes.

Unlike self-compassion, self-criticism makes us feel even worse about our failures. It prompts automatic thoughts that tear us down and convince us that we’ll never be good enough. Self-criticism emphasizes our mistakes, and while listening to feedback is good, self-criticism takes it to an extreme level. It turns into something counterproductive. That rumination hurts. 

We’ll keep making mistakes throughout our entire careers and personal lives. That might sound awful, but it doesn’t have to be. A self-compassionate approach will help us learn from our mistakes and make us more experienced employees.

Self-criticism won’t do that. Of course, some days, we feel like wallowing in self-pity and being negative, but we can’t let those days control us. We should always remember that we might not be able to control what happens at work, but we’re able to control how we react. 

If you need help fine-tuning your approach, consider meeting with a BetterUp coach. They’ll teach you how to transition from a harmful approach with self-criticism to an empowering one with self-compassion.


How to be more self-compassionate at work

Even if we’re superstars at being compassionate with ourselves at home, we need to bring that same mentality into the workplace. 

Studies have found that self-compassion training at work helps employees have healthier well-being and experience less burnout and emotional exhaustion. We have to practice self-compassion if we want to take care of our well-being, but the workplace is full of stressors, so it’s not always easy. 

Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered. Here are six ways to have more self-compassion at work:

  1. Do more shadow work to improve your self-awareness to understand what impacts you and why
  2. Practice mindfulness activities like deep breathing or quick stretches
  3. Forgive yourself when you make mistakes and view them as learning opportunities
  4. Overcome a fixed mindset and adopt a growth mindset that welcomes change and trying new things
  5. Practice gratitude by journaling, or showing yourself appreciation
  6. Understand your limits and set boundaries to protect your well-being and work-life balance

Treat yourself how you treat others

How would you comfort a discouraged friend? You provide positive and realistic encouragement in a non-judgmental way because you want to be a good friend. 

So why can’t you treat yourself the same way?

Mindfulness is connected to your self-compassion. Being mindful means maintaining a strong awareness of your thoughts, how your body feels, and your surroundings. You’re in the present and consciously accept what you’re feeling and doing.

This helps you respond and act with more purpose and awareness, and self-compassion requires this awareness to act with kindness and respect.

You’ll learn when you practice mindfulness and show yourself compassion and empathy, your whole attitude toward mistakes and setbacks will change. You’ll see the value in treating yourself with kindness and being gentle with your inner dialogue. 

If you’re unsure how to start practicing this, imagine a situation where a friend is in your shoes. Visualize what you’d say to them. Think about how they’d respond and what kind of advice would help them in the moment. Take your own advice. 

It’s OK to be in a bad mood sometimes, regardless of why. You’ll have moments where you think your mistake will mean the end of the world, or you’ll never improve. But the reality is that everyone feels this way sometimes. It’s how you pick yourself up afterward that matters. 

Talking to a friend can make you feel better, but never forget that you’re capable of infusing positive self-talk into your mind. You’re the one that understands your needs and values the best. Trust yourself. 


Self-compassion vs. self-indulgence in the workplace

Don’t feel bad about being self-compassionate or prioritizing yourself at work. Treat yourself, and remember to do your best and enjoy your work. But we want to emphasize the difference between having self-compassion and being self-indulgent.

Let’s review some basics of what it means to be self-indulgent compared to having self-compassion.

Self-indulgence is:

  • Excessive or unrestrained behavior to achieve your own desires and impulses 
  • Doing whatever you feel like in the moment, no matter what the consequences are 
  • Having poor self-management or lacking perspective on what your actions mean

Sometimes, self-indulgence is warranted. You’re allowed to have a day where you eat ice cream until you feel sick, simply because you want to, or treat yourself to an expensive purchase. You just have to make sure you don’t overdo it.

Self-compassion is:

  • Being understanding toward yourself when you encounter a setback or make a mistake, rather than criticize yourself or ignore issues you’re experiencing
  • Being conscious of your words and actions with self-awareness
  • Being open to learn something new and putting in the effort to create change

Indulging in something extravagant might seem like self-compassion, but a discipline is a form of self-care, too. Being patient and kind with yourself — and your limits — is more sustainable than always giving in to your desires. 

When you’re compassionate with yourself, you don’t overlook your mistakes or disregard them. You accept that you’ve made a mistake and choose to learn from it. This attitude will take skills to a higher level, help with work engagement, and help you avoid making the same mistakes. Practicing self-management regulates your behavior, thoughts, and emotions productively.

But when you have too much self-indulgence, you forget to acknowledge and learn from your mistakes. You do whatever you like, and your mistakes don’t resonate with you. You won’t grow — personally or professionally — if you aren’t open to viewing mistakes as learning opportunities.

If you aren’t willing or motivated to learn from your mistakes, you’ll face negative consequences from your boss. No matter how amazing you are at your job or how many years of experience you have in your industry, you can learn something new


Self-compassion and leadership

Everyone benefits from self-compassion in the workplace. But not everyone knows how to practice self-love and forgiveness effectively. That’s where leaders, managers, and employers come in.

They show team members that being compassionate isn’t just telling people to take it easy. They should encourage you to reflect on your initiatives, mistakes, and growth as a self-compassionate employee. 

Self-compassionate leaders are better managers because they make their employees comfortable and safe. They ensure that employees know their well-being is a top priority, creating a more productive work environment.

But not all employees have self-compassionate leaders they can look up to in the workplace. One survey found that only 60% of employees feel like their manager cares about their well-being, and 40% say their manager encourages them to take time off to care for themselves.

Leaders need to make their work environment supportive through compassion and forgiveness. By asking their employees questions and keeping tabs on how they’re doing, leaders can create a healthy work environment.

Leaders might make it a norm to have a mid-week check-in with their employees to see how everyone’s doing with their workload and mental health and adjust accordingly.

Plus, their compassion might very well be contagious. When other employees notice how their leaders value their emotional and mental wellness or take time off for their well-being, they’ll take a page from their book and do the same. 


Accepting your failures will lead you to fix them

Practicing self-compassion at work will teach you to understand that mistakes are bound to happen, but they aren’t the end of the world. Setbacks are part of life, and you’re going to experience them whether you want to or not. It’s all about your approach. Acknowledging and accepting that you’re a human being allows you to become better at what you do.

Self-compassion will show you that too much self-criticism will damage your self-esteem, and you won’t learn as much. But self-compassion welcomes learning opportunities and isn’t afraid to look closer at what went wrong.

Next time, skip the part where you beat yourself up over work and show yourself some compassion. You’ll thank yourself in the future.

Find someone outside of work to help you practice self-compassion. At BetterUp, our coaches will be your biggest supporters as you learn to be your own champion.

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Published September 12, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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