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Dealing with a career or life detour? Practicing self-compassion makes a difference

We have all heard the phrase “nothing ever goes as planned.” When the rock group Styx wrote a song about it, they claimed it was hell of a notion. Countless memes feature quotes from world leaders, professors, inventors and writers waxing poetic about plans that didn’t work out getting you to where life intended. But when things take a massive, unplanned detour in your career and life overall, it can be devastating. While therapy, coaching, support groups and journaling can all help deal with the loss, you should also give yourself a healthy dose of self-compassion. It certainly helped Luis Velasquez.

Velasquez grew up in poverty in Guatemala. Political violence was a way of life and he thought that was normal. That is, until a move to the United States opened his mind to what was possible. He secured a college scholarship in Florida, finished his master’s degree and was recruited to do a Ph.D. at Michigan State University in the field of molecular biology. Velasquez got married, bought a house and thought he was done. But shortly after receiving his Ph.D., and beginning prestigious post doctorate work, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in October 2003. Doctors said Velasquez wouldn’t be able to teach or even walk in a straight line again.

He survived the tumor but neither his professional dream nor his marriage did. Crushed by this loss, Velasquez nearly committed suicide. Accepting that his dream of being a professor was gone, he focused on getting his health back. At first, Velasquez was only able to shuffle a few steps. He progressed to short walks, started jogging and then began to run several miles at a time and eventually became an ultramarathoner.

Things started to fall into place and Velasquez regained his self-confidence. He broke into the Human Resources field, working overseas in places like Saudi Arabia, the Congo and Sudan for a company that did consulting in developing economies. He went back to school, got an MBA in Leadership Development and he met a wonderful woman.  Velasquez remarried and started a family. Only to have the tumor reappear in 2013.

It meant having to start over again. Unable to travel, Velasquez lost his job. But with the full support of his wife, he pivoted once more. Leveraging everything he has learned along the way, Velasquez adopted a new goal to make a difference as an executive coach and leadership facilitator. Today he is thriving doing that kind of work for organizations like Google, Twitter and Stanford University while contributing articles to Harvard Business Review Ascend and Chief Learning Officer Magazine.

When asked what has made the difference, he talks passionately about the importance of self-compassion. Velasquez explains that one of the reasons he contemplated suicide was shame, falling short when comparing himself to the person he used to be, someone who didn’t exist anymore. “The minute I accepted myself as I was, tumor included, I started being more optimistic and realistic about the possibilities of what I can do,” he added. “It is about having self-compassion and realizing that I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be better, a little bit at a time.”

As Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading experts on self-compassion writes, “with self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”

Want to have a better career by practicing self-compassion? Here are a few tips to get started:

Tame your inner saboteur

You know that inner voice that turns all Debbie Downer with critical comments, trying to hold you back? It is called your inner saboteur. Rather than stick your fingers in your ears and chant “I can’t hear you,” pause and listen intently to what that internal critic has to say. Often those comments originally stemmed from a desire to protect yourself from being hurt. I do this via a journal entry, thanking the voice for any original positive intent, but explaining that it is time to behave differently now.

Be kind to yourself

Neff has noted that “Self-Compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively. Self-Compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly… embracing ourselves, flaws and all.” Acknowledge qualities you like about yourself and your accomplishments on paper and out loud. Treat yourself like a true friend would, being loyal and supportive instead of dismissive and negative.

How have you practiced self-compassion following a career or life detour? What kind of impact did that make on your journey?

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