Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Did you know self-compassion has been linked to better sleep quality and quantity?

Today I want to tell you a self-compassion and sleep success story. If you struggle to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, and deal with high stress levels and perfectionism too, this newsletter is for you!

Sleep Deprivation and Mental Health: Jim’s Story

I have a therapy client, let’s call him Jim. (Details have been changed to preserve privacy.) Jim heads up one of Minnesota’s biggest organizations that advocate for children with disabilities and other special needs. When he first started with me, he said he was worried that his mental health was seriously impairing his ability to lead this organization that he cared so much about. Here were his concerns: 

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling uninspired and overwhelmed
  • Impulsiveness
  • In the face of problems, feeling generally stuck and hopeless
  • Forgetfulness and trouble prioritizing
  • Chronic second-guessing when making decisions
  • Emotional reactivity/irritability
  • A sense that those he led didn’t trust him

Jim thought he was dealing with a bout of major depression. What he didn’t realize was that all his symptoms lined up with sleep deprivation.

When I asked Jim about sleep, I learned he got about four hours per night; drank coffee all morning and most of the afternoon (daily basis); relied on alcohol, Tylenol pm, or both to fall asleep; was usually on his iPad or iPhone until about midnight most nights; and awoke every morning feeling exhausted.

Incremental Changes

We decided to start by working first on sleep hygiene and see where that got us with his depressive symptoms. So, in February of 2023, Jim started making incremental changes to his sleep routine. 

  • Started charging his phone outside his bedroom.
  • Committed to a “lights out” bedtime of 10:00 pm
  • Weaned off the Tylenol PM—3 a night, 2 a night, 1 a night, eventually nothing.
  • Stopped drinking coffee after 11:00 am.
  • Put away all phones, tablets, and TV one hour before bed, and read instead.
  • Stopped all evening alcohol intake.
  • Began a five-minute self-compassion practice before turning out his lights at night.

None of this was easy. No habit change is. But Jim persisted, step by small step.

One week in November 2023, Jim walked in for his weekly therapy session, sat down, smiled, and said: “So, I came across this quote by Jeff Bezos. It describes how I’ve been feeling pretty much every day.” Here’s the quote:

“We all know that feeling when we are awake, productive, full of energy, and happy to be alive. Those are the days when the fabric of life twists and turns in our favor, being productive is easy, and nothing can stop you.” – Jeff Bezos

Then he said to me: “Andrea. I feel like a different person than when I started. I can remember why the work I do matters, and I have energy to do it. I feel creative again. I’m making better decisions in every realm. I’m not as hard on myself – I bounce back after making mistakes. My team is in a better mood, and they’re getting more done. I’m just more there than I was before—I have gas in the tank.”

And then? Jim dumped me! He’s done with therapy for now, and I’m thrilled for him. His sleep revolution saved his mental health and revolutionized his ability to show up as a leader.

Why Sleep Matters for Leadership, and How Self-Compassion Can Help

Sleep replenishes and refuels the whole brain, but especially the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for executive functions like focus, problem-solving, prioritization, insight, empathy, working memory, decision-making, self-control, creativity, and adaptability. 

Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. When people don’t get 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, they are all the things Jim was when he walked into my therapy office. Mental illness is often fueled by sleep deprivation. 

Getting good sleep is essential to your well-being, resilience, and effectiveness at work and at home.

The Pink Bubble Light Switch Meditation For Sleep

I want to give you the mindful self-compassion exercise I gave Jim, which I use myself many nights.

It’s called the Pink Bubble Light Switch Meditation. It combines (1) Glinda-esque, Wizard of Oz imagery, with (2) Andy Puddicombe’s classic “light switch” body scan, with (3) a dose of Kristin Neff’s mindful self-compassion techniques.

INSTRUCTIONS

  • Lay down in your bed, on your back. In yoga, this is called shavasana, or corpse pose. Close your eyes.
  • Take several deep breaths, inhaling through the nose, and exhaling slowly and fully from the mouth. Feel the body releasing tension and settling down into the mattress beneath you.
  • Become aware of the feeling of breathing. The gentle rise and fall of your stomach. You might want to rest your hand on your belly. Simply observe the breath.
  • Now imagine a pink bubble forming around your entire body, encircling you fully. Inside this bubble, you are completely safe, shielded from all anxious, worrisome, and self-condemning thoughts. In this bubble, there is only acceptance, compassion, and love. Inside the bubble, it feels like a warm, healing, glowing light all around you.
  • When anxious or “never enough” thoughts try to enter the bubble, they just ricochet off the smooth surface, and back out into the universe. Your awareness returns to your breath. The pink bubble is an impenetrable barrier. 
  • Now simply rest in your pink bubble for a minute. In your mind’s eye, watch your anxieties ricochet away from you while you simply watch your breath.
  • When you’re ready: With the imaginary bubble remaining in place, become aware of your feet. Your feet carry you throughout the day – they work hard. Now imagine turning them off like a light switch. They are done for the day and switched off. 
  • Now become aware of your legs, noticing the feel of them. And switch them off, feeling them become heavy and relaxed. Your legs are done for today.
  • Move attention up the body, “switching off” various parts, until the top of your head is reached.
  • Become aware of your entire body, safe in the pink bubble, and “switched off” fully. Rest here for a minute and enjoy the feeling of safety and release.
  • Now when you’re ready, slowly start to return your attention back to the here and now. Wiggle your toes, your fingers. Flutter your eyes open and return to the room.

If you struggle with getting good sleep and feel it’s affecting your mental health and/or leadership capacities, try a few of the sleep hygiene tips Jim put into place. And try the Pink Bubble Light Switch Meditation, too! Many of my clients have found it to be wonderful for bringing self-compassion and calm to your entire body and mind before you nod off. 

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.