How to Be Compassionate to Yourself at Work

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is confidence the key to success, or is it overrated? How should you treat yourself when you fail?

In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker contends that confidence can cause you to attempt things beyond your ability, ultimately leading to failure. He believes you should trade confidence for self-compassion. Be realistic about your abilities, and be kind to yourself when achievements are beyond your grasp. Barker says that self-compassion is a superior way to get what confidence offers: a better mood and increased performance.

Continue reading to learn how to be compassionate to yourself, especially in the workplace.

Be Compassionate to Yourself

Being kind to others can help you succeed, but how should you act towards yourself? Conventional wisdom dictates that being confident is key to success—and that if you aren’t confident, you should act as if you were. However, Barker argues that confidence is overrated. We’ll discuss why projecting confidence isn’t always the best idea—and how to be compassionate to yourself instead.

Barker admits that confidence has many benefits: Notably, confident people often become successful because they’re willing to take advantage of potentially risky but ultimately rewarding opportunities. (Shortform note: Barker argues that confidence leads people to take risks, but one expert suggests that the reverse is also true: Taking risks increases your self-confidence by proving to you that even if you fail, you can still get through that failure.)

However, Barker contends that we focus too much on the benefits of confidence and not enough on its negative consequences: the reality that, just because we’re confident (or pretend to be confident) in our ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re able to do that thing. As a result, being confident can lead us to believe that we can do things we can’t and thus make poor decisions. 

To illustrate, Barker tells the story of martial arts expert Yanagi Ryuken. Ryuken was confident that he could defeat his opponents without engaging in physical contact with them and agreed to test this ability in a fight—which he promptly lost, along with his credibility.

Why Ryuken Didn’t Have Self-Esteem

Barker never explicitly defines confidence or its related terms. The closest he gets is when he equates confidence with self-esteem and implies that being “overconfident” involves a surplus of self-esteem that leads us to overestimate our abilities and thus make bad decisions. However, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden emphasizes that self-esteem consists partly of trust in your own capability—a trust you develop by repeatedly proving that you’re capable.

By Branden’s definition, Ryuken—and others like him—didn’t suffer from an overabundance of self-esteem (as Barker argues) but rather a lack of it. Branden contends that understanding your reality and responding appropriately to it is essential to your self-esteem. Moreover, he implies that by repeatedly making good decisions that take reality into account, you repeatedly prove yourself capable and thus improve your self-esteem. Since Ryuken was unable to accept the reality that his fighting abilities were not as magical as he wanted to believe, he didn’t have high self-esteem in the way Branden describes.

How to Avoid the Drawbacks of Confidence

So how can you avoid the negative consequences of confidence? According to Barker, the best way is to ignore confidence entirely. Instead, try to become more self-compassionate—in other words, be kinder to yourself when you fail. Self-compassion improves your performance and boosts your mood—just as self-confidence does. However, self-compassion has one major advantage over self-confidence: When you’re self-compassionate, you don’t overestimate your abilities. Rather, research indicates that being self-compassionate encourages appropriate judgments so you see your true self—flaws included. 

Understanding Self-Compassion

In The Confidence Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman elaborate further on the benefits of self-compassion, which they define more explicitly than Barker as judging yourself by the standards that you judge your friends by. They explain that self-compassion allows you to accept failure because it reminds you that you’re human and that humans aren’t perfect. 

Kay and Shipman add that self-compassion encourages you to take positive action by reminding you that it’s OK if a risky action doesn’t work out. This may explain why self-compassion improves your performance and boosts your mood: As we’ve seen, risk-taking often leads to success, and research suggests that risk-takers are happier

But what if you’re not willing to prioritize self-compassion over self-confidence? In that case, Barker says you can avoid the worst consequences of confidence by never pretending to be good at things you can’t do: When people discover that you’ve lied to them, they’ll stop trusting you. Instead, work on improving your skills: Doing so will increase your confidence, but this is deserved confidence that reflects reality—and so doesn’t lead you to make poor decisions. 

The Relationship Between Vulnerability and Lying

It seems obvious that someone who learns you’ve lied to them would stop trusting you—so why lie in the first place? One possibility is that you lie because you feel vulnerable. In Dare to Lead, researcher Brené Brown explains that when people feel vulnerable, they automatically resort to defensive behaviors that protect them from negative emotions. Similarly, if you’re put on the spot and feel vulnerable about admitting you can’t do something, you might lie to protect yourself from embarrassment. 

To avoid resorting to defensive behaviors in moments of vulnerability, Brown explains that people depend on “grounded confidence,” confidence based on a proven ability to face your vulnerability rather than a belief that you probably should. So if you struggle to improve the skill you’re tempted to lie about, try improving your levels of grounded confidence instead. One way to do so is to approach your work with curiosity: By taking the time to examine problems instead of panicking, you’ll recognize and take advantage of valuable learning opportunities.

Of course, improving your skills takes time. So, what if you haven’t yet improved your skills but are in a situation where you have to get someone to admire you—like in a job interview? Barker suggests you don’t lie, but rather be the “best version of yourself” so you present yourself in a positive but accurate light.

(Shortform note: How can you present the best version of yourself in a particular situation? Experts contend that, in addition to actually having the skills you claim to have, you must also determine what version of yourself the situation requires and be driven to act like that version of yourself. For example, in a job interview, you must determine what the interviewer wants, want to be that ideal, and present a version of yourself that’s close to the ideal but remains true to you.)

How to Be Compassionate to Yourself at Work

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Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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