When I begin talking with new clients about self compassion, I often get a head-tilt and funny looks from them. After all, many optimal performers have succeeded this far with a hardened approach to feelings and sensitivities. It’s when “Suck it up, Buttercup!” begins to fail them that they realize there’s a problem.
Much of what I teach in optimal performance involves reducing the mental noise that can distract us, bring us down, and impair our ability to perform our best. Self compassion is an important part of being mentally and emotionally focused in competition.
The truth is, the Suck it Up approach is a real house of cards. It looks great when things go well. But, when we have setbacks, injuries, and other disappointments, it all comes tumbling down and we’re forced to admit we can’t just tough our way through everything. That’s usually when people come to see me… when they’re discouraged, losing confidence, not enjoying it any more, aware they’re not representing their best selves.
It’s usually not long before we get to the concept of self compassion, and why top performers need to develop this skill as much as any other. Yes, you read that correctly, self compassion (and compassion, in general) is a skill. It’s something you can get better at, practice, and use for your own success.
What is self compassion?
To be clear, self compassion is NOT telling yourself it’s ok to settle for less, or to underachieve. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, in many ways. The version of compassion I teach is based on the work of Paul Gilbert, and his wonderful book The Compassionate Mind.
When teaching compassion for others, I suggest that compassion is:
- Being non-judgmentally authentic and candid about yourself in the present, and
- Holding space for the Other to respond to this as they need.
There’s a lot contained in number 1, and it doesn’t give us free reign to just say anything we think at any time. However, it emphasizes that being completely honest is paramount to compassion. It also compels us to be willing to open ourselves to a variety of responses, even the ones we don’t really want to receive.
How does this apply to self compassion?
We need to be authentic, honest, and candid… but non-judgmental about how we are right now. If you’re upset, be willing to state that without judgment. If you’re hurting, be able to say so (it doesn’t make you weak to acknowledge pain). Then, accept that for what it is.
If you’re distracted and feel like your tennis backhand mechanics aren’t working properly, and you’re down 2 sets to 1, acknowledge that and stop there. Avoid saying things like “I’ve beaten this guy 3 times this year, what’s the deal?” or “Geez – how did I make it this far in the tournament playing like this?” These are not non-judgmental, and they tear you down. It’s OK to be frustrated or angry. Just choose not to let that devolve into self-criticism. Instead, acknowledge your frustration. Simply saying something to yourself like “This is REALLY frustrating” is a version of holding space for yourself. You’re not demanding you be any other way – just accepting it and allowing your attention to turn to productive solutions.
Here’s the problem with judgment statements. On some level, they create a threat for you, invoking the Sympathetic Nervous System (commonly known as Fight or Flight). While your conscious mind may be frustrated you’re losing, when you go negative and judgmental, the fastest and most primal parts of your brain become fearful there’s a tiger in the bushes. Sure, you know consciously you won’t die by losing this match, but at some deep level, your brain doesn’t know that, and that part of your brain works much faster than cognition.
Does self compassion make me a slacker?
In a word, NO. Self compassion makes you honest with yourself, and helps you be completely accurate about understand your current state of mental, physical, and emotional being. In fact, it lets you say something like “I’m 2 minutes behind my target running pace” in a way that allows you to calmly and efficiently adjust to the situation. Self compassion is not an easing of goals or personal standards. In fact, it allows you to have more control by offering yourself a clear understanding about where you really are, unencumbered by ego or mental dysregulation.
How does it help me perform better?
First, it helps you be clear about what’s going on in your own performance.
There’s nothing wrong with being fiercely competitive, until that quality impedes your ability to observe how you’re really doing. The less energy you spend tearing yourself down, the more you have to devote to analysis and recovery when things aren’t going your way.
Second, it helps you have a better attitude.
If you can be authentic about a performance, you recognize that a good performance doesn’t make you a better person (you avoid getting cocky). Likewise, a bad performance doesn’t make you less of a person – just a person who still has more work ahead of yourself.
Third, it gives you a TREMENDOUS competitive advantage.
While the runner behind you might actually be faster, when he freaks out that you spend the first mile ahead of him, he’s wasting energy beating himself up. You’re spending your energy checking in with yourself very honestly, monitoring, adjusting. You can have a clearer sense of how your body is responding to the stress of competition. While the guy behind you is only focused on one thing (not ahead = behind = losing = LOSER), your self compassion allows you to have a much more robust internal monitoring system. This virtually guarantees you’ll pull further ahead in the next mile. Self compassion makes a clear mind possible, and allows us to truly give our best effort, unimpeded by busy, judgmental brains and dysregulated emotions.
Want to work on your own self compassion skills? I love helping top performers find this extra advantage! Contact me to set up a consultation, to see if my work is right for you!