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Quit Being So Hard On Yourself: Self Compassion and Performance

April 16, 2019


If you've ever been stuck with a screaming baby you know that yelling back at it does not make matters better. It only makes thing worse.


There are two skillful ways of working with a crying baby:


1) Hold it, rock it, cradle it, and show it boundless love.

2) Let the baby cry it out; stop trying to intervene and create a safe space for the baby to exhaust itself.


We'd be wise treat ourselves the same way we treat crying babies. When we mess up, fall short, break a good habit, give into a bad one, get caught in a negative thought cycle, or find ourselves stuck in a bad mood state the inclination is to yell back. We berate ourselves for failing and judge ourselves for thinking and/or feeling badly when we have no reason to. But here's the thing: much like a crying baby, all that berating and judging never makes things better; and it almost always makes things worse.


Research shows that individuals who react to failure with self-compassion get back on the bandwagon much more swiftly than those who judge themselves. That’s because if you judge yourself for messing up, you’re liable to feel guilt or shame, and it is often this very guilt or shame that drives more of the undesired behavior. The same is true with cognitive and emotional states: resisting an unwanted thought or feeling usually makes it stronger.


When you mess up or find yourself stuck in a rut—which you will, regardless of how great a performer you are, because you're also a human—don't add fuel to the fire. Much like a screaming baby, resist the urge to yell back and try to show yourself some love instead. If that doesn't work, do your best to walk off the battlefield. Rather than engage in the situation by telling yourself stories about yourself, try to create the space for your mind-body system to do the equivalent of "crying it out."


One of my favorite Buddhist parables involves arrows. When you get hit with an arrow, the first arrow, that hurts. But it's often the second and third and fourth arrows that hurt worse. The first arrow is something negative that's already happened. The subsequent arrows are your reactions to the negative situation that only work to fuel the fire. A daily practice for me is to realize when subsequent arrows are hitting (usually in the form of negative thinking) and use that as a cue to come back to the present moment and, if I can, to do so with self-compassion. It can be as simple as the mantra: "This is what's happening right now. It's okay. I'm a human. What, if any, skillful action can I take?" 


And while simple isn't easy, it can be very effective. View this type of self-compassion like any other skill: don't expect it to work right away. You've got to develop it over time with consistent practice.




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