Nursing Book Club

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, PH.D.

How to stop criticizing yourself and deal more constructively with mistakes

As nurses, we’re good to our patients, but hard on each other and — according to author Kristin Neff, Ph.D. — hardest on ourselves.

In her 2011 book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, Neff explains that self-criticism plays an important role in our culture because it “ensures acceptance within the larger social group.”

For example, if we say to ourselves or tell someone else that we’re being dumb before they have a chance to say it to us, we can avoid or deflect external criticism. That way, we help to ensure that we get to stay in the group or on the team.

I witnessed an illustration of this idea when a colleague confided to me that she’d made a medication error. She was so distraught that she told me she was thinking of leaving nursing altogether. Not only did she feel that she could not forgive herself, she believed the rest of the staff would see the mistake in an even worse light.

Most of us have felt this way at one time or another, even though the real-world reactions of others are seldom as bad as we fear. After all, who among us has never made a mistake? In most cases, if another nurse made a mistake, wouldn’t you encourage them to acknowledge it, fill out the paperwork, speak with the supervisor and move on?

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However, if you made the mistake yourself, you might still be having nightmares about it weeks later. The self-censure can be worse than any disciplinary action. And sometimes, we punish ourselves over errors our patients, colleagues and managers wouldn’t even notice.

Disarming the Internal Critic

This is not to say that we shouldn’t take our responsibilities seriously, but Neff argues that if we look deeper at the context of overly critical self-judgment, we can reduce our stress levels and deal constructively with mistakes rather than striving for impossible perfection.

Neff identifies three important points to focus on:
  • Being kind to ourselves
  • Recognizing our common humanity
  • Practicing mindfulness

She explores each of these concepts, using examples from her own life to illustrate how we can reconsider our actions from a more compassionate viewpoint.

Neff also discusses possible reasons for intense self-criticism, such as past abandonment and overly critical parents, teachers or coaches. Throughout the book, she offers exercises in identifying and acknowledging our emotional pain and moving past it. Look at it this way: If a friend were in a difficult spot, wouldn’t we treat them with kindness?

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Beyond Self-Blame

Shame and criticism are powerful motivators, but often, there are kinder ways to get the message across. Neff encourages “responding rather than reacting” and notes that practicing mindfulness in our daily lives can make this easier.

Neff bases her approach on Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, now used in hospitals and clinics throughout the country. Younger nurses just entering the profession may already be well-acquainted with some of these techniques, but for the rest of us, reading this book could be a game-changer. Practicing self-compassion can not only promote personal growth, but also foster better interpersonal dynamics that make for a stronger, more positive healthcare team.

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. (William Morrow, 2011).

Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, PHN, is a public health nurse whose 40-year nursing career has taken her from inner cities to medical missions in Central America. She turned to writing because she believes that everyone, not just nurses, needs to understand what nurses do.

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