The diary of a coach: hugging yourself works wonders

It is far better (and healthier) to motivate yourself from a place of self compassion, rather than self criticism, says Harpreet Chana

Harpreet Chana

This month I have worked a lot on self compassion in leadership. I run a group coaching programme and this has been the topic of the month, but it has also come up in individual coaching sessions. The benefits of self compassion over self criticism are well documented. Kristin Neff’s excellent book on the subject helps to frame why being a self-compassionate leader is so crucial to your success in 2023.

But for many of the leaders I coach, it's almost an alien concept. These are high achievers. They have got to their levels of success by driving themselves to push harder, longer and better than their peers and this success gives them validation that they are worthy. So it's a win-win, isn't it?

Unfortunately not. As a leadership and mental wellbeing coach (and a former burnt-out pharmacist) I know first hand the effects of motivating yourself through self criticism. Most of us turn to self criticism as a form of motivation because that's all we know. It's how we were taught when we were young. If we did something wrong, we were scolded by parents, teachers or managers. We used that external criticism to motivate and propel ourselves forward and do better next time, so that we could avoid further external criticism.

The problem is, receiving that external criticism was so painful and for some of us so frequent that we came to expect it. So, to protect ourselves, we turn that criticism in on ourselves, to help soften the blow.

Not sure what I mean? Have you ever scolded yourself with statements such as:

‘I should have done better’

‘Why didn’t I do it that way?’

‘What is wrong with me?’

‘I’m so stupid, etc’

That’s all self criticism. And it’s really unhelpful.

Any form of criticism, whether self or external, can put our bodies into ‘fight or flight’ physiological stress. Over a prolonged period of time, consistent exposure to this type of stress has disastrous effects on our physical and mental health. It is far better (and healthier) to motivate yourself from a place of self compassion, rather than self criticism, which completely erodes self confidence. I have coached a number of senior leaders whose constant self battery has led to major impostor syndrome. They just don't feel good enough wherever they go because that's what they are used to telling themselves.

My best piece of advice on this is: ‘If you wouldn't say it to another person, don't say it to yourself.’

Think about some of the things you say to motivate yourself. Would you ever say these things to your children, your teams, your friends or any other person you are trying to influence or inspire?

When training on this, I get participants to write down all of the horrible stuff they say to themselves in their heads. I then get them to read what they have written and ask them whether they would use this same language to motivate someone else. 

Their response? ’No, of course not! It’s abusive! It’s horrible! If someone said that to me, I would just crumple in the corner and cry!’

So, if you wouldn't use that language towards another person, why are you doing it to yourself? Replace the criticism with compassion. Show yourself the same empathy you have for the employees you work with. Commend yourself on a job well done. Console yourself with a ‘never mind’ if things don't go to plan. Affirm to yourself that you are smart, intelligent and capable. Because they wouldn't have employed you if you weren’t.

Add my last tip? Hug yourself. Hugging releases the hormone oxytocin, which is a feel-good hormone that instantly makes us feel better. So, when you catch yourself either judging or criticising yourself, stop. Ask yourself: ‘What would I be saying if I were talking to someone else?’ and hug yourself while you repeat those things out loud.

As you can imagine, I get some strange looks when I suggest this to my coaching clients. But it does get results. Why not try it for yourself and let me know how you get on.

Harpreet Chana is founder and CEO of The Mental Wealth Academy