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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

How self-compassion impacts work, relationships and wellbeing



“Understanding and practising compassion towards myself is key to being compassionate with others.”

 Malavika Divakaran


In this conversation, Malavika Divakaran shares her journey towards self-compassion and her experiences as an international development professional in different work environments. She also discusses how self-compassion has affected her work and well-being. What does self-compassion look and sound like? How can we instil more compassion in our relationships and organisations?


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About Malavika


Vanakkam (Hello in Tamil). Malavika champions a world where anger and fear manifest as curiosity, vulnerability is a strength, and empathy is infectious. She joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2021. Previously, she worked in Haiti, India, and Madagascar in community engagement, program implementation and evaluation, partnership development, and evidence-based policy change. There, she dialogued with local communities about the life they wanted, which shaped Malavika’s passion and mission. She wants to live in a world where exploration isn’t exclusive to the privileged, ecological economics replaces classical economics, and indigenous knowledge is widely applied in conservation.


Malavika finds peace in bodies of water (cartwheeling with orcas), snowcapped mountains (flying over them with Dumbo), and colourful flowers (galloping through fields with Spirit). She also enjoys indulging in sweet treats, exploring multicultural cuisines, and sharing these experiences with her favourite people.


 

SJ: What resonates with you when you hear “compassion”? 


MD: It is a very personal topic. In previous roles, I have struggled in competitive work environments. In these settings, I found it hard to practice self-kindness because I felt that I “wasn’t good enough”. It took me a while to realise that I thrive in a collaborative environment where I can show compassion towards myself, and where the manager and co-workers also demonstrate compassion towards me and each other. 


SJ: How did you notice you were performing better in a more compassionate setting?


MD: I realised that I was hard on myself for making small mistakes because I hold the value of “perfectionism” highly. Bringing my attention to this value and working on positively reframing self-critical or anxious thoughts increased my productivity. My fear of making mistakes was taking up mental space and energy that could be channeled into positive thoughts. This mindset shift to confidently say “I’m good at what I do, and I belong here” improved the quality of my work and my emotional health. I was happy.

 

By being kind to myself around my mistakes, I have also been able to be more understanding when colleagues make mistakes and find ways to support them in their growth process.

By asking myself if my actions and thoughts are compassionate towards myself, I find it easier to forgive and find inner peace.


SJ: What have you learned about a compassionate environment?

 

MD: The support of supervisors and colleagues who appreciated my work, provided a safe environment to make mistakes, and encouraged me to make my voice heard even when I doubted myself was crucial in me trusting my instincts.


My biggest lesson has been that having supportive and positive colleagues contributes more to my overall happiness than the nature of the work itself.

 

SJ: Based on your personal experience, what is a situation or project that has been successful because compassion was present in some form?


MD: One of my jobs required more data work than expected. I found the data tasks hard, and my questions were often dismissed by more senior analysts. During this time, I had a compassionate manager who agreed to set time aside for me each week to go over my questions. He was my sounding board, and through his support, I developed small bites of confidence and became more capable at analysing data. This act of compassion helped me settle into a new function and be successful. 


I’ve been fortunate to work in kind and collaborative teams where it’s easier to be myself. My favourite two years of my ten-year professional journey were with a team that fostered a safe, fun, and collaborative environment despite the fast-paced nature of work. Starting every team meeting with an Icebreaker question created an environment to laugh and be silly.


Since everyone on my team was understanding and encouraging, it was easier for me to be courageous. It was easier to ask questions, to disagree and provide an alternate option because I knew they would be received with an open mind.

A safe and collaborative team motivated me to try harder and helped me realise that I can and do perform at a high level.


SJ: It’s a great example of the positive impact a safe internal and external environment can have on us. On the flip side of this, can you think of a situation where things didn’t go as  planned due to a lack of compassion?


MD: I once worked on a project where the lead researchers wanted to do focus groups with small shop owners. As the team on the ground, we knew that it would be impossible to get shop-owners to leave their shops - their livelihoods - during a workday to participate in a focus group, especially without any incentives. I mentioned this several times, yet I was asked to push through and try harder. Ultimately, after several rounds of trying, the lead researchers realised it was not feasible.


With more compassion, we could have found a different data collection strategy sooner and avoided project delays.

 

In this situation, there was a lack of compassion towards me, my lived experience, and more importantly, a lack of understanding towards the lives of our target research group.


SJ: If you were to summarise this experience as a chapter title, what would you give it?


MD: “I am struggling, and you should care. Otherwise, the project will fail, and so will you.”


There is so much lost potential when we are unwilling to let go of our ego or our pride.

SJ: What do you see as the key challenge to bring forth more compassion towards yourself? 


MD: That depends on the phase of life or situation. Sometimes, it’s suppressing unhealthy thoughts, such as wondering if I should be harder on myself. The answer is no. Other times, it’s shielding myself from others' hostile behaviour and speaking up to protect myself. Practising self-compassion has taught me that forgiveness is not about the other party but rather about finding peace and moving on for my own well-being.


I am learning that self-compassion allows me to be more content with who I am and what I want for my life.

SJ: In your opinion, what is the key challenge in promoting more compassion within an organisation? 


MD: That’s a hard question! People are the challenge. Our behaviours are a result of our complex experiences. The lack of compassionate and emotionally available leaders is a major challenge. The Netflix series Ted Lasso should be recommended viewing for leadership :)


We are all products of our environments, so a general challenge is to create an environment that helps us manage our triggers and control our reactions in work relationships.

SJ: What are the behaviours in a workplace that have made you go: “Ah, this is how I know this is a compassionate environment”? 


MD: In my early days of joining a team, my colleagues would message me explaining acronyms before I needed to ask, so I felt cared for. I remember a meeting with my manager where I told him about everything I did not understand. His response was: “How would you know all of this already? You have just started this role.” I knew then that I had entered a compassionate environment. He understood that as a newcomer, my main responsibility was to learn and ask questions.


SJ: Would you say that compassion in organisations needs to be top-down and that it needs to come from senior leadership?


MD: YES! However, that may not be enough as there are multiple levels of managerial staff.


We often rely on managers to guide and lead us. Therefore, it is important that compassion is instilled at this level as a leading example. 

SJ: What would help you move forward with this and instil more compassion?


MD: I believe in – and highly value – community.


I would like a community support system to continue my self-compassion journey and to instil the conditions for compassion in my workplace.

In moments of doubt and stress, I want to be heard. Hearing others’ perspectives on how they have moved through a particular situation teaches me coping skills.


For example, being a part of your compassion community calls, where we come from different organisations and backgrounds is helpful. It feels safe to blend personal and professional lives in this type of environment.


SJ: What else would you like to share related to compassion? 


MD: We all experience some pain and struggle that will, over time, move us forward. Having people believing in me has been crucial in these times.


Compassion means being there for others during their struggles, helping them find the strength to stand up for themselves and ask for change.

Compassion matters in all types of relationships – with colleagues and managers, with friends and family, with romantic partners.


When I feel stressed in a relationship, I ask myself: Where are compassion and respect? Is there understanding? 

Then, I think of relationships where I feel safe and belonging. I believe that we demonstrate self-compassion when we work on our fears, understand where they come from, are kind towards those triggers and find our strengths. I top it off by writing a sticker on my wall that says: “I deserve better”. Because I do – and you do, too.  

 

 

This conversation reflects Malavika Divakarans’s personal views and does not represent the views of any organisation she is currently or has previously been affiliated with.


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