We hope you enjoy this guest post written by Jonathan Ward, a Courage Coach and Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher
“Why bother? You’ll never amount to anything. You will never be as fast as the others, give up now you useless, lazy good for nothing waste of space.”
This sounds like a scene from a movie, where a sergeant major is trying to encourage a reluctant new recruit to move from his indolent ways to trying harder, to achieve more, to be better.
The narrative might be more like this:
“If you don’t push through illness and pain, you will never reach your goals.”
“I missed a training session, it’s a disaster. I’m a disaster.”
However, this kind of language, maybe with different words, is often how we speak to ourselves. This harsh tone, this inner critical voice, believes that it is motivating us to run faster, swim harder and cycle faster, and that without it we would turn into that lazy good for nothing.
If you had a friend who was struggling with their training, would you ever dream of speaking like that to them? Probably not.
So why do we speak to ourselves like that, and is there an alternative?
We speak to ourselves like this because most of us don’t know a different way. And what tends to happen when we do speak to ourselves like this, is that a part of us feels powerful for thinking it is helping, while another part of us feels criticised, belittled and shamed.
And yes there is an alternative. Self-compassion. You might notice your reaction here to the words self-compassion ~ that it is : self-indulgent, weak, a way of making excuses. You may think this is not for you. Perhaps the following might change your mind.
Research studies show again and again that self-compassion is none of these things and that in fact to the contrary, self-compassion:
: builds long-term health and well-being goals, because compassion wants long-term health rather than short-term pleasure.
: creates resilience mentally, physically, and emotionally. Research shows that self-compassionate people are better able to cope with tough situations such as failure, not living up to their own expectations, chronic pain or stress. It increases our capacity to be with difficult emotions such as guilt, shame, or fear.
: creates the safety we need to admit when we are wrong, and cultivates personal responsibility rather than an abdication of responsibility.
Probably the biggest fear of being kinder to ourselves is that we will lose our motivation. But consider this. If you had a coach who was, as in the example at the beginning, constantly berating you, telling you that you are useless and no good, how long would you keep them? What would be the effect on you? How would it affect your confidence? Your belief in yourself? On the other hand, if you had a coach who was encouraging and supportive, and motivated you with words like “you can do this” rather than criticism, how would that be?
How can self-compassion be of help?
We begin with what self-compassion is, and then discuss how you can use it in your daily life and how it can support you in your goals.
Self-compassion has two complementary sides ~ the capacity to respond to ourselves with understanding and kindness, often known as “yin” self-compassion. This is the comforting and soothing part. The other side is “yang” self-compassion, which helps us to maintain firm boundaries, gather what we need, share what we have, encourage and celebrate ourselves and to stand up for ourselves in the world in which we live.
There are 3 active elements to self-compassion.
Mindfulness – the conscious awareness that we are struggling. Mindfulness is awareness of present moment experience. We cannot begin to offer compassion if we do not know that we are in pain. Mindfulness brings perspective and moves us away from over-identification.
Common Humanity ~ reminding ourselves that we all struggle and that we are not the only one. This moves us from isolation to connection.
Self-kindness ~ comforting ourselves with soothing touch and kind words, speaking to ourselves as we would speak to a friend who was struggling in the same way. As humans are mammals, we respond very well to soothing touch and gentle vocalisations. Self-compassion can also be behavioural ~ the kindest thing to do might be to pause and rest, listen to some music, take a gentle walk.
How to practice self-compassion
The 2 central questions of self-compassion are:
What do I need?
How would I speak to a friend?
Let’s take an example of guilt for missing a training session. Feelings of guilt, and rumination about the guilt, cause stress in your body. The pain of guilt is a natural human emotion. It is how you respond to it that creates your reality.
One of the manifestations of the inner critic is the taskmaster/pusher. This part of you wants you to succeed, do well, achieve. And in conscious alignment, it can function well. But if it is driven beyond conscious coherence and becomes out of alignment it can lead to overtraining, pushing yourself too hard and losing contact with what your body really needs. You may want to question what drives this part of you ~ is it the need for approval, self-worth, avoiding shame, or numbing feelings? It might be that exercise and training have become a way of avoiding pain in itself.
When we resist the pain, we cause ourselves more suffering. To avoid the guilt you might train through your pain, causing yourself more stress and anxiety either physically or emotionally. More stress creates more inflammation, along with a lowering of your immune function, and this will cause your body’s performance to decrease.
If you can be with your pain, the stress function (release of cortisol and adrenaline) can be abated. Self-compassion disrupts the cycle of our default response to pain ~ that we shouldn’t have it, and wondering what we can do to make it go away.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional
Pain x resistance = suffering
If we ask the question here, “What do I need?”, it might be to let go of the story of guilt and replace it with a kinder narrative. “It’s ok that I missed that session”, or “In the grand scheme of things, it won’t make that much difference”, or “I’ve done a really good week’s training, it’s ok to not train today/right now.”
A short and easy practice:
- Name your pain
- Remember that you are not alone
- Ask yourself, “What do I need?”
- Honour what arises
Listening to what your body needs as an athlete should not be optional. You know when you are hungry or thirsty, and you respond with food and water. Listening to your body’s need for rest, or for an easier training day, is not only self-compassionate, it will have long term benefits for your performance.
Rather than being a “soft option”, self-compassion supports and helps you to maintain long-term wellness, motivation, fitness, and resilience.
If you would like to find out more about the author you can visit his website, please click here.
Jonathan runs regular courses on mindful self-compassion. Please click on the link below to find out about the next course: