Self-compassion when running on empty: updated as we cope with coronavirus

Like many, it has taken me a little while to even begin to find my place within the current global crisis, but with a glimpse of sunshine today I can more easily observe this pause as an opportunity. My curiosity and a renewed energy led me to look back at a piece written last year on the importance of self-care which feels so relevant to the time we find ourselves in now.

Thought-provoking articles often linger on the edge of conscious thought. They prod the curiosity button and linguistic earworms burrow their way in. This was the case for me after I read an article published in GP Magazine by Dr. Jennifer Napier.  The phrase that struck a chord time and time again after reading Dr. Napier’s piece, was ‘heroic professionalism’.

The article suggests that General Practitioners would do well to consider whether their patient professionalism, like any overused strength, can seriously wane when their own wellbeing tank is empty. I cannot begin to imagine how those in the medical professions are finding the capacity to dig deep in the face of such challenging times right now and my thanks for their dedication is boundless.

This scenario is by no means a hazard for the medical profession alone. It is a challenge increasingly seen across the business world. We’ve seen it in the organisations where we coach and support their senior leaders as they navigate through uncertain economic, political and now pandemic environments.

Of course, organisations cannot force employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing, nor can they ‘fix’ employees if they break.  Autonomy and self-responsibility begin and end just there: with the self.

Organisations should, however, as Dr. Napier suggests, recognise and act with an ethical duty of care. They should provide a systemic context that does not bend people out shape with performance expectations, but enables them to always be at their personal best - at work and home. Being at your personal best right now is mostly allowing yourself to be good enough and if that means letting your children photo bomb your work video conference then so be it.

And it’s senior leaders who, in this discombobulating, post-Brexit, mid-Covid-19 world must now model a shift away from what Dr. Napier references as ‘paternalistic, heroic professionalism’. We often see this in the cultures of organisations in which we work, even more so when bunker mentalities and crisis scenarios become the norm.

There are echoes in the idea of heroic professionalism in the Theory of Drivers, a model from the world of Transactional Analysis (TA). For those that are unfamiliar, TA is both a psychotherapeutic modality and a theory of communication aimed at supporting individuals (and organisations) on the journey towards sustainable performance and ultimately, an autonomous way of living.

The Theory of Drivers is based on the 1970s original work by Taibi Kahler and has been developed over time into a relatively simple set of five working (and living) styles. These were called ‘drivers’ to reflect the driven or compulsive nature of our actions when we are under stress. Identified first in therapy settings, they are subconscious attempts by us to behave in ways that will gain us the recognition we need from others. They are also programmed responses to the messages we carry in our heads from important people in the past.

The five Drivers have simple names which belie their complexity but are wonderfully descriptive of how they manifest in people: ‘Hurry Up’, ‘Be Perfect’, ‘Please Others’, ‘Try Hard’ and ‘Be Strong’. Of course, in both work and life these characteristics have advantages as well as drawbacks. But here’s the thing: it was said by respected Transactional Analyst Julie Hay, that a driver is rather like a superstition. Some part of ourselves believes that if we don’t walk under ladders, or avoid the cracks in the pavement we can dodge any imagined consequences. In the same way that if we work or live in a particular way (with the accompanying characteristics) we will be kept safe from problems and get the respect, the rewards and the approval from others we think we need.

Of course, t doesn’t take much to see the flaws in this unconscious thinking and in those flaws the myth is revealed. Perfection is, of course, unattainable: we can’t please everyone and even the strongest fall on occasions. Trying to be who we believe we should be, the ‘heroic professional’ or the last man/woman standing always leads us to feel more stressed. Hence why we end up putting more energy into our driver behavior, creating more issues and getting even more stressed. The only thing we really end up creating successfully is a vicious circle, which is hardly heroic and desperately unhelpful to those who look to us for leadership in difficult times.

Breaking out and loosening the sometimes stifling effect of drivers can be helped by self-compassion and self-awareness. There are multiple strategies out there for becoming more self-compassionate, and a good coach can work with you at an individual level. The key is knowing your values, strengths,and weaknesses: don’t strive for perfection, recognise that we as individuals are constantly evolving. In the book "The Happiness Track”, by Emma Seppala, she highlights that your relationship with yourself is just as important as your relationships with others when it comes to getting ahead professionally. Right now for many leaders and managers getting ahead has been pegged back to simply surviving

Personal wellbeing audits from which practical strategies for change can be formulated are a good way for any business to show a more progressive focus on psychological wellbeing as a means of sustainable success and survival. Smart business leaders know that wellbeing and the new Covid-19 refracted goals of welfare, implication,and reboot go hand in hand. They recognise that heroes who burn out leave unfillable gaps behind them. The extra mile can often exact too high a price.