According to neuroscience both self-criticism and criticism of others bring lack of awareness. Forgiveness and compassion – part one in this F word series.
Many of my colleagues in information security believe that they been having a groundhog day when it comes to the universe awareness levels on the subject of information security. Again and again they have to face stupid colleagues/users/management that seems to refuse to understand the importance of information security. Ranging from witty sarcasm via anger to pure evilness (yes, I’ve seen it) people in our profession have developed a wide range of methods to handle their frustration. What they seems to neglect is the fact science shows that our attitude toward our target audience is totally counterproductive.
It seems that making people feel self-compassionate about their own actions is much more in-line with neuroscience than the common approach used by most of my information security colleagues. Multiple studies have shown that helping others to become self-compassionate to themselves is the most effective way of helping them to change and handle challenges.
The Importance of Self-Compassion
In a 2011 seminar called “Happiness Within Reach” conference that took place in Stanford University, Kelly McGonnigal gave a talk called “The Importance of Self-Compassion”. Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, and a leading expert in the new field of “science-help”. She teaches for a wide range of programs at Stanford University, including the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, the Graduate School of Business, and the School of Medicine’s Health Improvement Program.
- Be your best friend: By thinking of a negative event that occurred during the day that caused distress and left the feeling upset, the people who did so decreased their level of depression and increased their happiness. The secret to that? they were asked to do so in a compassionate way – by writing one-paragraph letter to themselves in a nurturing, caring way, as if they write to a friend in need. (Source: Shapira & Mongrain (2010). “The benefits of self-compassion and optimism exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression.” The Journal of Positive Psychology.)
- Pessimism is counter-productive: Participants were asked to process negative statements (e.g. “Imagine you just received the third job rejection in a row”) and it was discovered that those who processed them via a negative prism activated areas of the brain that relates to behavioural inhibition and punishment, while those who did so in a positive, optimistic manner activated areas in the brain which are associated to compassionate and self-awareness. (Source: Longe et al (2010). “Having a word with yourself: Neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance.” NeuroImage.)
- Self-compassion means health: practicing self-compassion makes you:
- Happier, more optimistic, and have better social life.
- Less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, self-criticism, and unhealthy perfectionism.
- Protects against social comparison, social anxiety, anger, and close-mindedness.
(Source: Neff & Vonk (2009). “Self-compassion versus global self-esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself”. Journal of Personality.)
- Perception of self-compassion: many people fear practicing self-compassion out of a fear they will lose their self-criticism, that it will show their flaws, which will make them weaker, that it will deteriorate their standards, and that it will make them paralyzed with sadness. These people also fear having compassionate feelings for others. (Source: Gilbert et al. (2010). Fears of compassion: Development of three self-report measures. Psychology and Psychotherapy.)
- Reality of self-compassion: in contrast to the popular belief, self-compassionate people have:
- Least likelihood to procrastinate. (Williams, Stark, & Foster 2008)
- Better ability to re-engage with goals following setbacks. (Neely et al. 2009)
- Increased personal responsibility for failure. (Leary & Adams 2007)
- Higher willingness to receive and act on feedback. (Chamberlain & Haaga 2001)
- Higher success rate when trying to stop smoking. (Kelly et al. 2010)
- More than tripled the 3-month success rate when they are on diet. (Lillis et al. 2009)
- Been associated with joy of learning for the sake of learning, (Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat 2005)
To learn more, see the beautiful infographic about the scientific benefits of self-compassion which was created by Emma Seppälä. Emma Seppälä, PhD, is Associate Director, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Research Scientist & Instructor in Stanford University and Science Writer for Psychology Today, Scientific American Mind, Huffington Post.
Information Security and Compassion
As you saw, self-compassion is an indicator for success in handling situations in which a person is facing challenges. As you saw, self-criticism is counterproductive for self-awareness and is the opposite of self-compassion. As you saw, a self-criticizing person is less likely to be able to feel or show compassion to others, and more likely to criticize others. This means that if a person does not have inner self-compassion he is lacking the required skillset that will allow him to help people succeed in their quest to tackle a challenge they have difficulties with. This means that from a scientific point developing, implementing or governing information security awareness training programs should be done by those who treat their target audience with compassion, not criticism.
I know my peeps. I love my peeps, and the honest truth is that the information security community are no expert in the “compassion” domain. Far from it.
Being a compassionate person requires skills which are not part of the curriculum of information security professionals. We all like to think of ourselves as compassionate (well, except for the psychopaths among us), but how many of us are experts in the field of compassionate and altruism research? How many of us even know there is such field? How many of us practice it daily, based on what science shows to be a path of compassion? It’s not only information security – how many people in an HR organization have such skillset?
The brutal truth is all of us have a very subjective view of what compassion is, and while we would love to feel we are compassionate it’s just a perception, which can be very distorted. Take for example Animal welfare in Nazi Germany, which was highly developed, as Nazis considered compassionate to animals as a high value. Yes, the same people who sent Jews, Gypsies and gays to concentration camps and death, the ones that started World War II and brought so much death and suffering considered themselves extremely compassionate human beings. Heck, Hitler was a vegetarian who was appalled by animal cruelty.
Me, of little Forgiveness
Fast forward from Hitler to… me (making my ancestors turn in their grave crying “Oy vey!”).
After ten years of “opening up” in order to be able to communicate with my youngest son that is unable to speak/communicate due to his autism I was sure I’ve changed myself and that I am “a better person”. I was sure that I am a loving human being, with deep compassion and kindness to others – especially to my kids. That is – until I met someone who was truly compassionate.
About a year ago I went down and kissed the feet of another human being for the first time in my life. No, I haven’t developed any fetish tendencies, nor had any (not that I’m aware of). I did it because the unconditional love, kindness, and compassion that individual gave to everyone, to herself and to me was so profound that I recognized not only her inner beauty but also the fact I have A LOT to learn. It’s been one heck of a year, learning and practicing forgiveness, compassion, kindness and love to others and above all to myself. I’m far, far away from being a fully compassionate human being but I am practicing it daily, and I feel humble by the blessing of meeting such teacher. The best part of this story is the fact she doesn’t even consider herself as one. That person was not a guru, a spiritual teacher, or anything like it. That person was just living the now.
I am aware that the idea of kissing someone else feet seems ridiculous. When I saw others act in such way on TV and/or on YouTube I thought they must have lost their marbles. So… if you find the description above to be a proof that I totally lost it I will understand. It’s just another proof to the subjectivity of our mind, to the fact that our perception of reality and our perception of our own experiences is the only truth we know – until we wake up.
After a journey that lasted 10 years in which I decided to change myself my perception of reality and my perception of myself was still contaminated (Buddhist term). I had no real self-compassion. It took a meeting with a person who was truly practicing it to make me realise what self-compassion is all about. Bowing and kissing that person feet was my action of deep humbleness to the human effort that the person had to go through in order to reach that state.
Like life, self-compassion is a journey, not a destination.
“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” – Oscar Wilde
When you look at information security awareness programs try to understand what approach the authors have taken with regards to self-acceptance and self-compassion. The success of an information security awareness training programs has a lot to do with the unconditional love, kindness, and compassion practiced by those who develop, implement and govern it.
What is the path to unconditional love, kindness, and compassion? Well, that’s a subject for another F article.
Blessed we are
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