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While watching the latest episode of your favorite TV show, do you ever feel you should be doing something more productive? When you’re working late, do you ever feel you should be going to the gym? While the “shoulds” in our lives help anchor us to what we believe matters in the world, unrealistic expectations of ourselves can become a source of suffering.

The origin of these unrealistic expectations is a lack of self-compassion, the ability to recognize your own suffering coupled with the desire to alleviate it. The good news is that we are all capable of generating self-compassion by simply paying attention to our minds.

It’s very difficult to recognize — much less respect — our own suffering. The truth is, we all need to find space to relax and unwind. Despite any privileges you may have, you too suffer from loss, fear, anxiety, and pain. None of us are exempt from losing loved ones, worrying about the future, or the challenges of getting old and sick. In fact, the recognition of our own humanity connects us to the humanity in others.

In Africa, there’s a concept called ubuntu. Archbishop Desmond Tutu described it in this way:

“We believe that a person is a person through other persons, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.”

Our connection to each other is why generating self-compassion is so important. How we treat ourselves inevitably impacts others. When you’re stressed or angry, do you find yourself saying things you regret? When you’re tired, how do you perceive your coworkers and the work you’re doing? Studies show that 90 percent of errors in thinking can be traced to errors in perception, and when we’re emotional, our perceptions tend to be inaccurate.

One of the biggest obstacles to self-compassion is a feeling that we’re being over-indulgent or self-pitying. We at Leading through Connection developed a way to tell the difference. Take our quiz below to see if you can spot the difference between self-compassion, self-indulgence, and self-pity. Don’t peek at the rest of the article until you’re done!

Quiz: Self-compassion, self-indulgence, or self-pity?

For each of the statements below, decide whether this statement reflects self-compassion, self-pity, or self-indulgence, and note your rationale for making this choice.

  1. I’m really stressed today, so I’m going to watch television for the rest of the day.
  2. What I’m going through is horrible, and my life is really terrible.
  3. I realize what I’m going through is tough, and I realize that others have tough lives, too.
  4. I’m going to spend a lot of time at the spa because when I do that, I become better.
  5. Perhaps exercising right now will help me to vent my frustrations.

The answers

So, you want to know the right answers? The truth is, there is no “right” answer because it depends on the individual.

There is only one criteria by which you can assess whether a thought or action is a reflection of self-indulgence, self-compassion, or self-pity: Does the thought or action result in long-term benefits for oneself and others? If the thought or action is constructive, this is a form of compassion, because it alleviates your suffering. If the thought or action is destructive, this can be a form of indulgence or pity. You can quickly learn the difference by training your mind to notice how thoughts and actions impact you.

I once coached a leader who emigrated from South Korea, and I asked him question 4. His response was quick and confident. He said going to the spa was clearly self-compassion. His rationale? This is something South Koreans do frequently for their wellbeing. In contrast, another leader from the Middle East argued with just as much confidence that this statement reflected self-indulgence. Her rationale was that going to the spa was not required to “become better.”

There is no objective moral argument that going to the spa is good or bad. How we view this activity is strongly influenced by our culture and norms. It’s more important to be self-aware and analyze for yourself whether an activity benefits you.

The takeaway

For the next few weeks, try to note when you are using “shoulds” in your life, and assess whether these expectations are realistic or if they are harming you.

For example, if you feel like you “should” read more but have little time in the next few weeks, try to let go of this unrealistic expectation for now. Or if you’ve always spent time going out with a group of friends but feel drained each time you do, reconsider whether you want to continue doing this so regularly.

When you can recognize what does and does not serve you, you can truly act with self-compassion. Pay attention to your mind, bring compassion to yourself, and see how this impacts not only your own wellbeing, but also the wellbeing of those around you.

Uvinie Lubecki

Uvinie is the CEO of Leading through Connection, an organization born out of Dalai Lama Fellows that trains leaders to deepen their capacity to relate to others at work. She spent a decade leading teams in the corporate sector, and frequently speaks at conferences on how a connective mindset is essential for leadership. In her spare time, she enjoys translating ancient mind-training practices into practical, modern-day tools. She holds an MPH from Harvard and a BA in neurobiology from Cornell.