June 9, 2019

Stress Less: Moving from Self-Criticism to Self-Compassion

Legal work is stressful.

Many lawyers work in high pressure environments where success is measured against the achievements of others. Deadlines are ever present. Errors can have significant consequences.

What you need is an inner voice that bolsters you up. Something to remind you that you have the education and experience to handle this work.

You are a capable professional. You know what steps to take to get it right. You can do this.

This is not the voice most of us hear. Instead, we hear only the negative words of our inner critic.

You are not good enough. Only you would make such a stupid mistake. You’ll never be as good as that person over there.

This critical self-talk is our brain’s response to danger. Not to a predator about to attack, but to the potential for “making an error . . . not being respected [and] losing control.”These thoughts become habit, eating away at our self-esteem. And we are not only hard on ourselves, we expect the world to judge us in the same way.

What could be the purpose of such self-criticism? How can negative self-talk help us deal with the dangers of our work?

The answer is simple. Self-criticism doesn’twork.

Critical thoughts are supposed to motivate us. Being hard on ourselves is supposed to push us to work harder and better. Negative self-talk is meant to be the fuel to make us power forward, overcome obstacles, and succeed.

In reality, this self-criticism has the opposite effect.

Fortunately, researchers have found an effective way to challenge the critical inner voice: self-compassion.

Using mindfulness to access self-compassion

Experts have developed guidelines for tapping in to compassionate self-talk. Psychologist Kristen Neff is a pioneering researcher in the area of self-compassion. She has defined the elements of self-compassion as self-kindness, recognizing our common humanity, and mindfulness: “a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.”

When experts discuss strategies for becoming more self-compassionate, mindfulness is always a central component. Its goal is not to prevent negative thoughts, as psychologist John Minda has found in his research at the University of Western Ontario. Instead, mindfulness activities like “the practice of meditation seem to help people become aware of negative thoughts, to acknowledge them and to then move on.”

Self-compassion is also “critical in the legal industry”, as Lisa Abrams and Ann Rainhart discussed at the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) Annual Education Conference this year. Their four-step approach to self-care draws on mindfulness practices through awareness of physical symptoms, labelling emotions, taking a mindful pause, and self-soothing techniques.

Why should lawyers try self-compassion?

It may not be possible to silence your inner critic, but it is possible to take away its power. Self-compassion can give you the chance to learn and grow on your own terms.