As we come to the end of summer and many of us have started a new school or university year, many of us are stumbling around, dazed and confused in the haze of busyness, others' demands, the pace of change and the maze of complexity that is our life today.
I marvel as I hear my clients talk of getting on and off planes to fly halfway across the world, scheduling back-to-back meetings, managing multiple expectations at work and at home and finding little time to pause and take time for themselves or their families. Amidst all the striving and driving, I also hear with sadness, how self-critical and berating people are. The quiet nag of feeling not good enough.
That used to be my life. As a lawyer and consultant, my days and my life were scheduled around the next client meeting or project. I loved my work and was achieving brilliant things. However, I was sick, my spine crumbling and making it impossible to function on anything but the hardiest painkillers. I was unhealthy. Fuelled by coffee, alcohol and late night snacks. But still I kept pushing because I believed that this is what success looks like. I've watched friends and clients drive themselves into the ground in the name of success. Burnout. Stress. Exhaustion. Depression. Divorce. Disconnection. All in pursuit of some elusive goal. Often the people around us ask us to slow down, to travel less, to take care of ourselves. But somehow that drives us even faster and further. That whiff of our vulnerability and the show of love and care amplifying what we do not give ourselves. When we feel unworthy, we work harder to prove ourselves and in so doing move further away from our true self. As we search for an answer outside, it lives dormant within us, waiting to be discovered.
So why is it so hard for us to show ourselves some kindness, some self-compassion? My experience is that I often feel a tension between achievement and self-compassion. I find it hard to believe that if I cut myself some slack, that I will get anywhere in life. I will be a failure. Working hard and being hard on myself go hand in hand. There's a little voice that convinces me that these are the only ways to succeed in life. I've spent a lot of years working on this and I know it's an old but persistent story. It was true for my prehistoric ancestors who had to be constantly vigilant for fear of predators. It was true for my grandparents emerging from the war and clocking on in the cotton mills of Manchester. It was partly true for my parents' working class generation. But it is no longer true for me and here's why.
The logic that struggle = success is a false one. The paradox is that it's only when we stop the struggle that we can begin to flourish.
Research shows that we can achieve far more and have greater emotional resilience if we are compassionate towards ourselves. In her study on the relationship between self-compassion and academic achievement, Dr Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as treating yourself with care and concern when being confronted with personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations (see link below).
When we are hard on ourselves, both physically and emotionally, we become self-critical. When we are self-critical, we are motivated to avoid failure and disapproval. This moves us further away from ourselves and what's truly important for us and we become slaves to the external drivers. We strive to compete, to perform, to be the best whether the thing that we're excelling in matters or not. I hear my clients say this all the time. They receive accolades, rewards, bonuses, recognition, all of which is satisfying for a short time, but then they move onto the next thing where they have to prove themselves again.
In contrast, self-compassion is associated with self-determination, successfully pursuing goals and resilience when goals are not met. People who are self-compassionate are also more likely to pursue goals based on mastery rather than performance. This means following an intrinsic motivation, working on something they're passionate about rather than something they "should" do and being willing to take risks leading to a more purposeful and fulfilling life. In my case, that translated into becoming a coach rather than remaining a frustrated lawyer, and my next evolution in becoming a therapist. It's not static, but a constantly emerging process that we must stay attuned to.
Self-compassionate people have less fear of failure and when they do fail, they see that as part of the process and try again. We all recognise that this is a key quality in complex environments where the solutions aren't clear. We need to be able to take risks and experiment to find innovative ways forward.
How do we open the door to our self-compassion?
Moving from self-judgement to self-compassion is a challenge. These habits are likely to be deeply ingrained for you and may feel difficult to change. Tara Brach says that the stories of our own personal deficiency are the hardest to wake up from, especially in our dominant western culture.
I find it much easier now to know when I'm in the grip of my critic and moving away from self-compassion. I've got here through paying attention to my internal drivers. I create space for myself by journalling, meditation and walking and I write out all that I think. When I hear myself beat myself up for being a bad person/mother/consultant/coach/therapist/fill-in-the-blank, then I step in and ask, "would I speak to anyone else like this?" if the answer is no, then I know I'm off course and need some gentle care. Also allowing myself to speak out my harsh self-criticism is a great way to hear how ludicrous it often is!
Dr. Kristin Neff, Tara Brach, Brené Brown, Byron Brown have all done important work and offer practical resources in this area, some of which feature below. If you recognise the critic in you, dip in and see what you're drawn to. And whatever you do, don't beat yourself up if you find yourself reading this, recognising yourself and then doing little or nothing. That's not the point! Be gentle with yourself...meet yourself where you are and treat yourself as you would treat a friend. I promise you will get further and feel much happier.
The poet John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara (1999):
“When this spiritual path opens, you can bring an incredible generosity to the world and to the lives of others. Sometimes, it is easy to be generous outward, to give and give and give and yet remain ungenerous to yourself. You lose the balance of your soul if you do not learn to take care of yourself.”
If we believe we are good enough just as we are, then we stop having to meet impossible standards and can start to focus on what is really important to us. And there lies true success and our truest contribution to the world. Believing in our own goodness, our own worthiness, our own...dare I say it.....loveability, jut for being who we are, is the ONLY key to a successful life.
Dr Kristin Neff, Ya-Ping Hseih and Kullaya Dejitterat's paper can be read here: http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/SClearninggoals.pdf
Soul Without Shame, A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within, Byron Brown