Archives for category: Empathy

Self-compassion is one of the most important modules in The Daring Way™ intensives that I run, and also a theme that comes up time and time again in my coaching with female leaders.  Why is it that we sometimes speak to ourselves in a way that we wouldn’t dream of speaking to our friends, (let alone our enemies)?

At its simplest, self-compassion is about treating yourself in a way that you would treat a close friend. What do you do when a close friend is struggling?  You give them a hug maybe, let them know that you’re there for them, you might buy them a gift or show them some empathy.

Too often, with ourselves, we interrogate our thoughts looking for fault and blame.  We beat ourselves up for our failures and the “should” voices have a field day; ‘You should have tried harder’. ‘You shouldn’t have believed in that’. ‘You shouldn’t have trusted that person’.  I also have a tendency to isolate myself and shut myself off from the rest of the world.

Kirsten Neff is a professor at the University of Texas in Austin who has made self-compassion her career’s work.  I recently had the good fortune of attending an advanced workshop in Texas which she led.  I have to say, the work we did together blew my mind.

Often in my courses we discuss Kristen Neff and her work.  Up until now the response has been fairly ambiguous. Yes, everyone agrees that we beat ourselves up and speak to ourselves in terrible, terrible ways.  Yet everyone feels a little bit resigned to it, that it’s an impossible habit to break.  There is a limiting belief that to embrace self-compassion is to be a bit fluffy and ‘woo woo’.  To be frank, it feels a little flakey to be consciously saying ‘Oh you poor thing that must be really tough’ to ourselves, rather than ‘come on Rox snap the fuck out of it!’.  The other push back is that our own internal critic has been the driving force behind the success in our lives.

Kristen blew all of this out of the water.

Firstly, she came along with the science.  The physiological underpinnings of self-criticism is your body feeling threatened – which will produce cortisol and adrenalin.  You don’t need me to tell you quite how damaging these are in large quantities for our bodies.  The physiological response is trying to attack the problem but in actual fact these stress hormones are attacking ourselves because we make ourselves the problem.

In contrast, the physiological underpinnings of self-compassion are in the mammalian care giving system.  Physical warmth (giving a hug), gentle touch and soothing vocalisations all produce oxytocin and opiates in our system. Also when you are compassionate the reward centres of the brain light up.  Self-compassion literally gives our body the resources to be able to hold our own pain.

When we think about our success being driven by our own self-criticism and harshness, you cannot help but wonder at the cost of what.  Sure, we may be driving our external success via promotions, pay increases and getting that mortgage.  But what is the cost of that on our physical and mental health? And is it truly sustainable?  We know that women seem to be more sensitive to the stress hormone cortisol than men (as detailed in Arianna Huffington’s Thrive).  Surely it’s time for us all to start taking this a bit more seriously.

self-compassion

Take a self-compassion break (courtesy of Kristen Neff).
Every bone in my body resists putting this simple breathing exercise in the newsletter and also resists doing the breathing exercise.  Breathing and mindfulness are a continual struggle for me – and yet the science is showing me it isn’t fluffy, new age shit at all.  This is what we need to start to heal.

Close your eyes and breathe slowly in and out.  On the out breath, breathe out compassion for other people.  On the in breath, breathe in compassion for yourself.  Keep doing this for two minutes thinking about different and specific people to breathe out compassion to, and then extend the same loving kindness to yourself.

Kirsten’s website http://www.self-compassion.org is also a wonderful resource for learning more about self-compassion.

Love Rox

Delusions of GenderThose of you reading popular science books or media articles about gender will have most probably formed an opinion that male and female brains are wired differently in utero and that these different brains create different minds.

In a fantastic read, Cordelia Fine’s work ‘Delusions of Gender’ seeks to unravel these assumptions and show just how unproven they actually are.

With chapter titles such as ‘sex and premature speculation’ (which the immature part of my own brain found highly amusing), she shows just how hastily conclusions are being made about the brain’s potential – perhaps just as the Victorians attributed intelligence to measures such as skull volume and brain weight.

For a start, brains are inextricably linked to the social context in which they develop and function.  How can we be sure that the differences seen in brain imaging aren’t a result of a lifetime of living in a society with very clear gender expectations?  What if sex differences in the brain were preventing sex differences in behaviour by compensating for the physiological differences?  What if smaller numbers of neurons are compensated by greater transmission capabilities of the neurons?

Attempting to summarise the thorough research analysis in to a few key points feels reductive and clumsy; and yet most won’t have the time or inclination to sift the research yourselves.  And this is what makes some of the current claims so scary – they quickly become part of the culture in which our brains and minds develop.  The results seem intuitive, gender expectations continue to be learned quickly and are then primed by the social context.

I’ve seen this borne out in the research I’m doing in the corporate world.  Talk to anyone about why there should be more women on the board, and they say that women are better at developing people and they are more empathetic.  I get it, I really do.  It’s easier to convince senior leaders of a business case in which women are going to bring something different to the boardroom table.  I’ve been guilty of sneaking in a ‘research suggests that women make empathetic leaders’ type comment just to get in the door.

Unfortunately there’s also a lot of research that shows that women don’t actually make more empathetic leaders.  It’s pretty hard to measure empathy.  Women are certainly more likely to say they are empathetic – but is this because of the gender expectations on them right from the start of their lives?  Is that because the popular media is constantly telling us that women are more empathetic?

The problem is that these scientific explanations (based on flimsy science according to Fine) make their way in to our culture and then impact the decisions that women make – thus continuing to fuel the so called differences between the sexes.  Women are more likely to choose careers requiring caring for people and empathy that, incidentally, seem to be the lowest status ones.  Those not displaying empathy are harshly criticised (perhaps as ‘ball breakers’).  In many instances a limitation on capabilities is implied – if you are empathetic then it is implied that you can’t make the hard choices when they’re needed, that you won’t be able to make unpopular decisions.

The reporting of the science in the popular press continues to place an expectation of how to behave and what choices to make dependent upon gender.

I certainly think a greater amount of empathy in the boardroom would be a wonderful thing.  But… I don’t think it’s solely the role of women to bring that empathy in.  And I think women can bring so much more to the board room table besides.