Back in the days when I was single and job-searching, my strategy for dealing with unsuccessful interviews and first dates was pretty much the same.
As soon as I’d left the office or the bar, I’d burst into tears of frustration and silently chide myself for my incompetence.
How could I be so stupid that I fumbled the “Why are you here?” question? Why would I bring up that story about my ex? Obviously, no one in their right mind would ever want to hire or date me.
I thought back on those days recently, while reading “The Happiness Track,” a new book by Emma Seppala, science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
In the book, Seppala argues that happiness is the unexpected path to success, and she emphasises the perils of self-criticism and the merits of self-compassion.
Seppala is the first to admit that the term “compassion” can sound soft and unscientific. But she also cites a growing body of research suggesting that your relationship with yourself is just as important as your relationships with others when it comes to getting ahead professionally.
If you’re mean to yourself whenever you stumble or fail, you simply set yourself up to fail again. But if you’re kind to yourself, you have a shot at doing better next time.
Seppala recommends a simple strategy for exercising self-compassion: Treat yourself as you would treat a colleague or friend who has failed.
“Rather than berating and judging,” she writes, “thereby adding to your friend’s despair, you listen with understanding. You encourage your friend to remember that mistakes are normal.”
She cites research by the psychologist Kristin Neff, who has found that self-compassion has three components:
- First, be kind to yourself by engaging in a positive internal dialogue. For example, you might say, “It’s ok that you failed; it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or bad at what you do.”
- Second, understand that everyone makes mistakes, and that what you’re going through is normal.
- Third, and perhaps most difficult, be mindful; be aware of your thoughts and feelings without succumbing to them. You might say to yourself, “This is really hard right now,” or, “I’m sorry you are struggling.”
By consistently practicing self-compassion, Seppala says you’ll reap a number of biological and psychological benefits, including enhanced well-being and less anxiety and depression. You’ll also have an easier time bouncing back from stressful situations — a trait psychologists call resilience.
When I spoke with Seppala, she emphasised that you can’t always change your circumstances — you can’t go back in time and fix the interview or the date. But you can certainly change how you respond, and specifically, whether you learn from the situation.
“When you shoot yourself down, you learn little,” she told me.
But if you talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a friend or a colleague, by identifying what you did wrong and coming up with ways to improve, you’ll learn and grow from the experience.
In the book, she outlines four key strategies for becoming more self-compassionate:
1. Replace your negative self-talk. Instead of saying, “How could I have done this? I’m such an idiot!” you could say, “I had a moment of absent-mindedness and that’s ok.”
2. Write yourself a letter. Again, pretend you’re writing to a friend who made the same error — you’ll likely sound a lot less angry and a lot more comforting.
3. Come up with a self-compassion phrase. Neff’s personal mantra in challenging situations is, “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment; may I give myself the compassion I need.”
4. Make a daily gratitude list. Every day, write down five things you feel grateful for. Even better? Add on five personal accomplishments you’re proud of.
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