A Self-Compassion Primer: Mental Energy Maintenance Through Staying Present

You may have noticed that DRIVEN has been spending some serious time on the topic of self-compassion. Why, you may ask, is self-compassion so crucial to a professional’s success? The answer resides in neurochemistry. If you’re not kind to yourself, you can’t show true compassion for others. When you aren’t compassionate to others, they sense it, they know it, and they don’t feel safe in your presence. That erodes trust and without trust, we’re toast. Business and career aside, life is too short not to take care of yourself and show some self-compassion. Every one of us deserves it.

According to psychologist and author Kristin Neff, the first rule of self-compassion is kindness to oneself. Simple to say, but if you’re anything like I had been in my past, when you’re down on your luck, that’s when you could be most ruthless to yourself. As Neff explains, self-compassion involves being kind to oneself in mind and body, whether by supporting your well-being or in response to suffering. Simply put, this is self-care, and is a prime component of our resilience. Yet often, people ‘push on through’ and minimize the need to manage their own health and well-being. For instance, if you had a bloody wound on your hand and didn’t tend to it, it would cause alarm for other people. So why is it socially acceptable, even heroic, to neglect our mental and emotional health?

Let’s dissect what being kind to oneself looks like by considering the power of connecting with our breathing and remaining in the present. These actionable steps have worked for my clients and for myself. Perhaps they will position you to take self-compassion from concept to reality.

The 60-Second Challenge

Let’s first agree to the working definition of caring for your mind as maximizing your mental energy plus tending to your emotional energy. Both forms of energy are essential to resilience. Mental energy in particular is indispensable to us as knowledge workers, but unfortunately that mental energy is finite. The good news is that we can refresh our mental energy quickly. Even 60 seconds of connecting with your breathing will realign your neurochemistry. [Tweet “Even 60 seconds of connecting with your breathing will realign your neurochemistry.”]Take the 60-second challenge and see for yourself: Right after you finish reading this article, smile, grab your smartphone, set the timer for one minute and begin focus on your breathing. Perhaps you’ll be captivated by the sensation of cool air entering your nostrils. Or, you might consider focusing on your chest expanding with “possibility”, and then contracting to release tension. You can even focus on your belly filling with energy with each breath. After one minute, check in with yourself. How do you feel?

Your big task is to convince yourself that refreshing your mental energy is important to you. Simple compliance begins when you set an alarm for 5 minutes before an important phone call or meeting and connect to your breath for one minute. Try this after a period of heavy, focused work and notice how it prevents your mind from racing away from the present. Jot down some notes to reflect on how each minute impacts the next 59.

Take Your Mind Elsewhere

Another mental refresh where a small investment equates to big rewards is when you’re waiting somewhere for only a minute: at a traffic light, on line at the drug store, or during a commercial break while you’re binge-watching your favorite tv show. Resist the temptation to check your social media status and connect with your breathing instead. If you were keeping score, this practice could count as double points, since social media can potentially punch a big old leak into your mental energy tank.

The Toggle Trap

A reliably energy-inefficient activity that totally depletes that priceless mental energy tank of yours is multi-tasking. Firstly, the brain can only focus on one task at a time, rendering multi-tasking a misnomer. You’re actually toggling from one task to the other so quickly that it creates the illusion of multi-tasking. Secondly, this toggling eventually takes its toll, and the mind tires. Not yours, you say? You feel a jolt of energy instead? That’s your dopamine talking. This hormone eggs you on, convincing you that the toggling can continue indefinitely, draining your brain’s energy further. As unsatisfying as it sounds, try doing one thing at a time. Like Dan Harris says in his book 10% Happier, “When you’re in a meeting, be there”.

Remember: These small, simple steps to being kind to oneself in regard to mind may be simple, but they aren’t easy. In my follow-up article, we’ll consider how emotional energy tugs at the mind.