Why does Self-Compassion matter in coaching?

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As coaches, we use our compassion every day when connecting with our clients. In my own coaching sessions, one of the topics that always comes up is Self-Compassion. In my view, this is one of the essential concepts for a coach to understand and to apply to themselves and to their clients. As Dalai Lama has said:

“Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.” – Dalai Lama

But what is Self-Compassion exactly and how can we bring it to our practice as coaches?

Definition of compassion

To better understand Self-Compassion, we will first look at the broader concept of compassion. 

The word compassion is often used interchangeably with concepts such as empathy and sympathy and it is sometimes difficult to clearly define what the difference between these concepts are.  Academics have long been debating this and are starting to reach a consensus about the definition of the concept “compassion”. Gilbert (2015) in reviewing several definitions of compassion, suggests that compassion has two elements in it, what he calls “psychologies”. The first element of compassion is the intention to turn towards and engage with suffering. So in other words, a conscious action to see and accept the suffering of others and their need for care. The second element of compassion is the intention to acquire wisdom (skills, knowledge) on how to alleviate suffering and to act on that wisdom.

As we can see from this definition, compassion is not just something we feel towards one another but there are a lot of action elements in it. Compassion requires an active decision to acknowledge the suffering, an active decision to try to help, and also an active decision to acquire the necessary skills to be able to help. In essence, this is also what coaching is all about. We coaches engage with our clients’ story, (but do not get overwhelmed with it) hence acting on the first element of compassion. We also continuously study, practice, reflect, and get supervision in order to know who we can help and how which is the second element of acquiring compassionate wisdom. 

Being compassionate towards others is suggested to have its roots in evolution (Goetz et al., 2010). Caring for others has helped humanity to flourish. When it comes to Self-Compassion however, the experience and also research shows that having compassion for others does not necessarily mean that we show the same kind of compassion towards ourselves.  Turning the compassion inwards can often be considered as a selfish act. The research in the latest years is bringing up more and more evidence on how practicing Self-Compassion is strongly linked to positive psychological well-being. Please read on to know more about Self-Compassion and its benefits.   

Definition of Self-Compassion

Neff (2003) describes Self-Compassion as a healthy attitude towards oneself consisting of 3 elements:

Common humanity: The acknowledgment that we are all part of a common human experience, and part of that experience is that we all suffer at times. When something unwanted happens to us, quite often the first thought is “why me?”. When social media is full of beautiful people “living their best life”, we can sometimes feel utterly alone in our suffering, feeling as we have somehow failed in our human existence. Acknowledging that challenges and suffering are part of human existence and that you are not alone in it, can bring perspective and relief in the midst of our suffering.  

Self-Kindness: We are oftentimes our own harshest critics, judging our faults and shortcomings harder than we do of those around us. Seeing ourselves in the same, kind light as we tend to see others, brings relief.  Remembering that we are not perfect and that’s ok, can be a powerful thing.

Mindfulness: In order to alleviate our suffering we first need to notice that we are suffering. This is where mindfulness comes to play. We quite often try to hide from our pain, ignoring it, using distractions such as excessive internet use, alcohol, shopping, anything that makes us ignore the pain. And when we do notice the pain, we start judging ourselves, thinking we should not feel it, we should know better, we should be stronger. We can get overidentified with our feelings and thoughts of suffering. Mindfulness allows us to look at our suffering with a non-judgemental lens: I am suffering. Just that. No judgement. 

When Self-Compassion became a popular topic a few years back, some mistakenly took it as self-indulgence, thinking that being self-compassionate was to take bubble baths and eat chocolate. Although self-care is an important part of being kind to oneself, that is not the whole story of Self-Compassion. If we think back to Gilbert’s (2014) conceptualization of compassion, these apply also to self-compassion. There is the part where we acknowledge the suffering and don’t judge ourselves for it. There is also the part where we take action, and very importantly, acknowledge and defend our boundaries, so that ourselves and others are not harmed. Neff (2018) calls this “Fierce Self-Compassion.” Oftentimes we need Fierce Self-Compassion to protect ourselves from others but we also needed in order to protect ourselves from ourselves. Imagine, it is late in the evening, you are tired and watching tv, enjoying your favourite show. The episode is at the end and you have to make a choice what to do next. The sensible part of your brain is thinking “I should go to bed, it’s late and I have an early morning and if I stay awake longer I will be very tired tomorrow”. The other part of your brain is just craving for that dopamine hit of seeing one more episode of your favourite show. The Self-Compassionate reaction at this point would be to say to oneself: “I know you really want that dopamine hit and I know that it will feel terrible for a moment, if you do not get it. But we are now going to go to bed, have a good night sleep and wake up refreshed tomorrow, ultimately that is better for our wellbeing.”

Being Self-Compassionate is not always a comfortable and easy task, but with practice, we can become better at it. Next, we are going to look at reasons why practicing Self-Compassion is beneficial for us coaches and our clients.

Benefits of Self-Compassion for the coach

As stated above, it is important to set boundaries, and this is especially important for coaches who tend to be naturally very compassionate towards others. Helping others is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world and certainly good for our mental wellbeing, but there is a limit on how much we can help others. The term “compassion fatigue” is often used to describe the taxing effect of being exposed to other people’s suffering (Figley, 2002). Although often linked to professions such as nurse, doctor or police, a coach can certainly also experience compassion fatigue. Talking to my fellow coaches, I’ve noticed that many of them went out of their way to help their clients during the pandemic, and are now feeling exhausted. The pandemic did, after all, also affect the coaches themselves, not just their clients. Research is suggesting that having a higher level of Self-Compassion buffers against experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout (Abdollahi et al., 2021; Beaumont et al, 2016).  On the occasion that the coach is already feeling burned out, practicing Self-compassion can help alleviate stress and burnout symptoms. 

As important as practicing Self-Compassion is for the coach, there are also several reasons why it might be beneficial to introduce Self-Compassion as part of the coaching conversation. We will now look at how practicing Self-Compassion can help your clients.

Benefits of Self-Compassion for your clients

Resilience 

The academics are still discussing the exact definition of resilience. The popular term being used is “bouncing back”, but sometimes it can also be “bouncing forwards”. What is however agreed is that when we talk about resilience there is a) an adversity and b) an adaptation to the adversity. There can also be protective factors that help us to adapt better, to be more resilient. 

According to research, practicing Self-Compassion can buffer against suffering from negative life events and enhance our resilience (Warren et al.,2016; Leary et al. 2007). When we are coaching clients around resilience, Self-Compassion could definitely be included as one of the factors helping to enhance resilience in clients.

Change

Almost all of the coaching conversations revolve around change. Our clients want to change themselves, their habits, or their circumstances, improve and become better. Change can be hard, it requires effort, patience, and time. In the beginning the clients are full of enthusiasm and determination. And then life throws in some obstacles, as it always does. There are relapses, cravings, breakdowns of willpower.  The traditional response has been to try harder and be critical of oneself. Research however suggests that instead of self-judgment, practicing Self-Compassion is one of the key components to successful change (Horan & Taylor, 2018; Mantzios & Egan, 2017; Adams & Leary, 2007). One of the reasons that Self-Compassion helps to change, is that higher levels of Self-Compassion is linked to a better ability to Self-Regulate, to override automatic thoughts and behaviour with conscious choices. (Terry et al., 2013). Research also suggests that training in Self-Compassion can lead to enhanced Self-Regulation (Dundas et al., 2017)

Increased motivation

Closely linked to change is motivation. Be it external or internal motivation, that is the thing that gets us going and that is also the thing that keeps us going. Our clients’ coaching journey to improvement starts with the motivation to change. Wait a minute, you might think, if you want to change, it normally means that you are not happy with the thing you want to change? So it’s rather the Self-Criticism that fuels motivation, not Self-Compassion?  Research is suggesting that there are clear reasons why Self-Compassion is a better strategy to increase motivation than Self-Criticism. First of all, Self-compassionate people might be less critical of themselves, but can still hold high personal standards (Neff, 2003b). Secondly, Self-Compassion is connected to realistic self-appraisal (Leary et al., 2007).
A coaching client practicing self-compassion will still have a goal and is looking at themselves and the process of change realistically, acknowledging the areas they wish to improve, knowing what their likely obstacles are going to be, and also knowing where their strengths lie in conquering the obstacles.  Dealing with all of these in a self-compassionate way, helps to keep up the motivation (Breines & Chen, 2012).

These are just a few of the benefits that a coach and a coaching client can experience when practicing Self-Compassion. Next, we will have a look at some exercises that can get you started.

Practicing Self-Compassion

The good thing about Self-Compassion is that it is something you can enhance with practice. There are plenty of exercises one can do, here we are going to present three of them. What is important to remember here is the word practice. To really start enhancing your level of Self-Compassion, these should not be just one-off exercises, but something that you actually incorporate into your daily life. 

Self-Compassionate Break (Germer & Neff, 2013)  

This exercise is short and can be used daily. Next time you are feeling stressed out, in pain, or uncomfortable for whatever reason, pause and remember the 3 aspects of Self-Compassion.

Say to yourself:

This moment hurts (Mindfulness)

Feeling hurt/suffering is part of life, we all struggle in our lives (common humanity)

May I be kind to myself in this moment/What do I need right now to show kindness to myself? (self-kindness)

As a  personal example, I used this exercise when my computer crashed while I was in the middle of preparing a presentation for the next day. Not only did I lose the presentation, but I was unable to restart the computer and it looked like I lost a lot more than just one presentation. You can imagine my immediate reaction, but I took a deep breath and decided to engage in a compassionate break. I first acknowledged my feelings about what had happened, the anger and helplessness. I also made a decision to not get caught in these feelings. Second I stopped asking, Why me? Why now? and reminded myself that these things happen, sometimes technology just crashes and I am certainly not the only one who is going through this. Third, I noticed that there were all these self-critical thoughts in my head about how I could have been so stupid not to make a backup copy, etc. Again, I made a conscious decision to soothe those thoughts as they were not helpful at all in finding any kind of solution to the problem at hand.

The compassionate break allowed me to pause, acknowledge what has happened, and move on to making an action plan on how to move forward. It did not undo what had happened, but it helped me not to dwell on the negativity of the situation. I must admit though that it has taken me years of practice in Mindfulness and Self-Compassion to be able to handle a stressful situation like this with Self-Compassion, so it might be a good idea to start with something smaller if you are new to this.   

Self- Compassionate letter (adapted from Gilbert, 2005)

First, think about a friend/family member/someone you love dearly who has been or is going through something difficult. Pay attention to the feelings you feel when you think about that friend and the struggle they are going through. Think about the strengths and weaknesses of that friend, the whole person. Next think about what type of words of encouragement would you say to that friend, what kind of acts of kindness would you do? If you notice your friend being overly critical or pessimistic about themselves, what would be your advice or consolation to that friend? When you have a vivid idea of how you would show compassion to that friend, now turn the compassion towards yourself and write yourself a letter from the perspective of a loving friend.

Write to remind that you are only human, about the power of self-kindness, about being mindful of your feelings and not overidentifying with them. Write all the encouraging and wise words that you would say to a friend. Now put down the letter for a while, and then come back to it. Read the words of compassion again and really feel how they are feeling. 

Mindfulness meditation

Different types of mindfulness meditations are an essential part of a Self-Compassion practice.  Mindfulness is a component of Self-Compassion,  but also a gateway to start becoming more Self-Compassionate. If you would like to learn more about Mindfulness and how to apply that to yourself and use it in your coaching work with clients, please have a look at our upcoming course Positive Psychology Coaching and Mindfulness  which starts on the 6th of April.

References:

Abdollahi, A., Taheri, A., & Allen, K. A. (2021). Perceived stress, self-compassion and job burnout in nurses: the moderating role of self-compassion. Journal of Research in Nursing, 26(3), 182-191.

Adams, C. E., & Leary, M. R. (2007). Promoting self–compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(10), 1120-1144.

Beaumont, E., Durkin, M., Martin, C. J. H., & Carson, J. (2016). Compassion for others, self-compassion, quality of life and mental well-being measures and their association with compassion fatigue and burnout in student midwives: A quantitative survey. Midwifery, 34, 239-244.

Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.

Dundas, I., Binder, P. E., Hansen, T. G., & Stige, S. H. (2017). Does a short self‐compassion intervention for students increase healthy self‐regulation? A randomized control trial. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 58(5), 443-450.

Eriksson, T., Germundsjö, L., Åström, E., & Rönnlund, M. (2018). Mindful self-compassion training reduces stress and burnout symptoms among practicing psychologists: A randomized controlled trial of a brief web-based intervention. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2340.

Figley, C. R. (Ed.). (2002). Treating compassion fatigue. Routledge.

Gilbert, P. (Ed.). (2005). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge.

Gilbert, P. (2015). The evolution and social dynamics of compassion. Social and personality psychology compass, 9(6), 239-254.

Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self‐compassion in clinical practice. Journal of clinical psychology, 69(8), 856-867.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological bulletin, 136(3), 351.

Horan, K. A., & Taylor, M. B. (2018). Mindfulness and self-compassion as tools in health behavior change: An evaluation of a workplace intervention pilot study. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 8, 8-16.

Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(5), 887.

Mantzios, M., & Egan, H. H. (2017). On the role of self-compassion and self-kindness in weight regulation and health behavior change. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 229.

Neff, K. (2003a). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.

Neff, K. (2018). Why women need fierce self-compassion. Greater Good Magazine, October, 17.

Neff, K. D. (2003b). Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

Terry, M. L., Leary, M. R., Mehta, S., & Henderson, K. (2013). Self-compassionate reactions to health threats. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(7), 911-926.Warren, R., Smeets, E., & Neff, K. (2016). Self-criticism and self-compassion: Risk and resilience: Being compassionate to oneself is associated with emotional resilience and psychological well-being. Current Psychiatry, 15(12), 18-28.