Getting Back on Track
Getting Back on Track
I remember when I was in high school, I worked really hard to achieve. I got involved in a lot of activities and didn’t have a lot of down time. I’d be up at 5:00 am to get to band practice (yes, marching band) and home after 2.5 hours of tennis practice to eat dinner and do several hours of homework before doing it all again. As long as I was doing I was achieving, in my mind. If one thing didn’t go well (like losing a tennis match) then I would come home and throw myself into writing a research paper. After a bad match, it was hard to focus though, the negative self-talk would creep back into my brain. In hindsight I think I was pretty stressed out, to no one’s fault but my own. My mom tried to help, she’d say “Honey, why don’t you take a nap?” or “That was tough today, do you want to talk about it?” At the time I didn’t see how taking a break or dwelling in the past would be helpful in my main goals of achievement. Remember, napping and talking are not actively doing something to achieve in my high school mind, so why waste the time?
What I realize now is that weather she knew it or not, my mom was trying to get me to learn to have some compassion for myself. To take a moment and reflect on the struggle I was experiencing in that moment. Not in a dwelling way, but in a compassionate way. In a way that offers acknowledgment of suffering in that moment. Engaging in self-compassion has the ability to quiet that boisterous self-critic that we all have. Our self-critic may think it’s being helpful by telling us how awful we are, but really it’s quite self-defeating. It gets in the way of productivity and makes us feel worse. On the other hand, self-compassion leads to resilience.
I’m sure that research paper I wrote after losing a tennis match was not my best work. But I was successful at feeding my critic, at least for a short time. Had I taken my mom’s advice and processed the failed game with her or allowed myself some rest, I may have had the energy and focus I needed to do my best work.
Everyone has a self critic. Some critics are meaner than others, but I think we all have the innate ability to beat ourselves up. Inviting self-compassion is like offering yourself the warmth and kindness you would offer to a good friend that was having a hard time. You’d reassure them and let them know you’re there for them. You’d validate how hard they’ve tried. We have a lot of practice being kind to our friends, but not to ourselves. Imagine saying the cruel things you say to yourself to your friend. It probably didn’t help to make them feel better, in fact it probably had the opposite effect. Self-compassion eliminates the time spent cutting yourself down and building yourself back up in order to try again. It allows you to hold yourself kindly in place, before taking the next step.
It’s time for a new approach. I’m excited about teaching people in my Asheville counseling practice more about nurturing self-compassion for themselves. Read more about it at http://self-compassion.org/. And next time you notice your self critic being active, try taking a Self-Compassion Break (adapted from Kristen Neff, PhD).
Lay a hand on your heart, offer yourself some warmth and acknowledgment of this hard time. Imagine what you would to say to a good friend who was going through a hard time. Say, “this hurts”, or “it’s hard right now.” Acknowledge that you are not alone in the fact that you are suffering, that suffering is taking place everywhere. Say something like “we all struggle in our lives.” Then say a kind wish for yourself like, “may I be kind to myself”. Experiment with what works for you. Taking some time to nurture yourself will set you on the right track to get where you want to go.