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How self-compassion impacts performance

Watch Craig and Richard discuss how self-compassion can improve study and work performance.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: We’ve already explored how self-compassion has a number of benefits for our well-being by disconnecting the fight and flight response and reducing levels of amygdala arousal, adrenaline, cortisol, that kind of thing. And in fact, activating very different circuits in the brain. The tend and befriend circuits, which are associated with the release of oxytocin and better well-being. But actually, self-compassion has a number of benefits for performance, as well. Could you say a little bit about that, Craig?
CRAIG HASSED: Yes, because if we start to reflect on one of the ways that we try and drive performance, we often try and use self criticism, getting hard on ourselves, judging, criticising, which actually is very often a distraction. And it ingrains the very things that we’re criticising. Now paradoxically, but interestingly, the research shows that when we’re more mindful, we actually develop a little bit more self-compassion. But when we look at how that translates into performance, it changes things in some very interesting ways.
So for example, students who fail a test, if they can be a little bit more self-compassionate, they’re more likely to actually get back on the horse and start, as it were, starting to improve their performance in that particular subject. Or if somebody makes a mistake in their lives, maybe does something that ethically disappoints them, self-compassion is not about ignoring the problem, but actually helps a person to look at it, to learn from the experience, and to be more motivated to try and not repeat that error again in the future. Other things that suggest that, for example, that a person is more likely to look at higher role models if they’re more able to be compassionate to themselves.
And when people feel terrible about themselves, self critical and judgmental, they often look very much towards lower role models that are not involving the things that that person might otherwise like to embody in their own life. So it helps people who are, as it were, to aim higher rather than lower, in terms of their behaviour and conduct. So there’s some of the interesting ways. And there have been others that have been explored, as well.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: It makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Often, when people make mistakes, their attention gets very much caught up in things like self-criticism and judgement . And of course, in that moment, their attention is rather than being on the thing that they need to repair or to fix or to learn from, it’s actually just caught up in something else. So just learning to bring our attention back to what’s actually in front of us, of course, helps us to disconnect from that and to learn from our mistakes, to improve our performance. And that sort of self-criticism and judgement is pretty much habituated for many of us much of the time. It shows itself up in mindfulness meditation.
Oh, why do I keep going off and criticising and judging what’s happening there, as well. And so it brings, mindfulness brings that to our awareness. So even if we’re doing that in our day to day life, or during meditation, we can start to just notice it, just notice the presence of it. Just notice as the effect of it, just notice as the effect that it has on how we feel and how we function and how we behave. And if we start to notice, if we realised it doesn’t serve is very well.
And so that’s, I think, the very important first step or first phase as we develop self-compassion is to be aware of what the current default or habitual patterns are.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: It’s a very interesting thing, actually. Often, in a course, as we’ve planned here at Monash, we quite often see students who have these very paradoxical experience of realising that they can simply bring their attention gently back from whatever’s distracting them. And of course, that means that they then spend more time in the present moment rather than caught up worrying about something else. So their performance improves. But also, so does their mental health and well-being, because they just become kinder to themselves.
CRAIG HASSED: And also, at home or at work. So you say, let’s say, the work environment. If we’re trying to drive performance with criticism and judgement, where people’s stress is going up, what we actually do is we might lift people out of apathy, if that’s where they are. But very quickly, people go over into high levels of stress. And performance is actually dropped. And so that kind of way of being very hard and critical, actually, is not a good long term strategy. But equally, in relationships at home, for example, being critical of others doesn’t necessarily help them to be more objective and reflective about their own experience. That really requires self-awareness. And that’s really a trait of mindfulness.
And so helping, whether it’s in the workplace or at home, say for a parent with a child or in school for a teacher with a student, helping that person to notice what’s going on for themselves, noticing the patterns of thought and behaviour that they’re engaged in and to notice the impact of that, can help a person to learn from experience rather than just keep on repeating the same mistakes.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: I know from my own experience that when I make a mistake and give myself a really hard time, that situation or experience becomes quite unpleasant. It literally takes on an unpleasant feeling or an unpleasant sense. And of course I want to avoid it even more.
CRAIG HASSED: So and it creates very often a sense of anticipation about, is this going to come up again? Or remembering such a negative or bad experience from the past and projecting that into the future.
RICHARD CHAMBERS: And simply just from being present, just from bringing the attention back to what’s actually happening and cultivating these attitudes like self-compassion, friendliness towards ourselves, something that’s called Lovingkindness, actually just activates parts of the brain that are very different to the default circuits, the fight and flight circuits. And positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson is also showing that, when we experience positive emotions, attention is much more flexible. And so a lot more behaviours are available for us. So we actually start to perform better by practising things like self-compassion.

Watch Craig and Richard discuss how self-compassion can improve study and work performance.

Experimenting with how self-compassion may impact our performance

If you’re curious about how self-compassion may impact your performance, you may like to try the following self-reflective exercise.

  1. Take a moment to think about an employer or teacher you’ve had in the past who was really critical of you. When we say critical, we mean saying things like ‘You’re no good’ or ‘You failed again’ and not simply the delivery of constructive feedback.

  2. Reflect for a moment on how that impacted your performance. What did it mean for the quality of your work or study?

  3. Now, take a moment to consider an employer or teacher from your past who was warm and supportive. You could sense that they really cared about you and, while they still helped you to grow by managing your performance there was a kind of gentleness about their approach.

  4. Reflect on how that employer or teacher impacted your performance. What did you notice about the quality of your work?

Change your approach

So imagine now that you are your own employer or teacher, and consider how by approaching yourself with compassion and kindness, you may actually perform more strongly.

It’s about your attitude towards yourself, not your workplace

As you share any comments or insights with other learners, please keep in mind that this self-reflective exercise is designed to help you consider how your attitude towards yourself impacts your performance (rather than sharing anecdotes about experiences in the workplace).

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