Self Compassion in the Crunch

By Kimberly Sogge PhD CPsych

How to Fail Well

In a session of mind training with young athletes on a cool October evening, a young man laughingly talked about a recent workout in which a malfunctioning bit of gear meant he had to work twice as hard as other athletes, and even with Herculean effort, he was still DFL among his peers. (Those of you who have been there know how painful being DFL can feel when you are not accustomed to being there).

This energetic and lanky young man described watching his mind resist the unpleasant experience of struggling to keep up with the back of the pack, and feeling the pain of the inner critic turning to lambast him for his poor performance.

“How long did your suffering under your inner critic last?” I asked him.

“About two intervals, or ten minutes. That is,” he said,
“Until I accepted it was just the equipment and there was nothing I could really do.”
“Beautiful,” I nodded.

Negative Performance Stories

This was a perfect example of what we teach in Mindful Performance Enhancement and Awareness Knowledge training (aka mPEAK, with Peter Lloyd MBA CCC Level IV coach) about Performance Stories, which are the narratives we tell ourselves about our efforts to accomplish something important to us. The most unhelpful performance stories are Personal, Persistent and Pervasive (from the work mPEAK founder Peter Kirchmer). Research has shown that more successful athletes choose narratives that are less personal, more conditional, less permanent. Stories that emphasize this perspective seem to cause less performance impairment and certainly entail less emotional distress for the performer.

When Failure is All There Is

This was a quick thinking group of athletes: one young member raised her hand and said

“But really, what about the time when there really IS evidence that things are bad. I mean you repeatedly have failures or things go badly and you really start believing your thoughts, because there IS so much evidence! What do you do then?”

“This is so common,” I said.

The commonality is not insignificant. It is important to know that one is not deviant or alone in suffering. Many people, athletes and all others, experience repeated setbacks, failures and frustrations in the pursuit of valued directions. As UK psychologist Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion Focused Therapy, would say:

“Shame and negative self judgements about failures and setbacks are not your problem, but they are your responsibility.”

It is a near universal human trait to become caught in negative, personal, persistent and pervasive stories about not just our performance, but about ourselves, when we face repeated defeats or frustrations. These patterns are not our fault.

In my clinical experience there are three ways to freedom from these negative Performance Stories.

It is your responsibility to access these routes to freedom once you learn about them.

How to Activate Compassion in the Crunch Times

Here they are:

Feel it to heal it. That is, anything we resist and refuse to experience tends to stick around. It is ok to acknowledge that you feel hurt, frustrated and sad when things do not go your way. In a fascinating fMRI study comparing the performance of advanced meditators with average folks drawn from the general population, when advanced meditators were put in patently frustrating or unfair situations, the areas of their brains which experienced pain in the body actually lit up MORE than those who did not meditation. The difference between those with years of mind training and those with untrained minds was only different in their RESPONSE to pain, not in the experience of pain in the body.

Defuse from thoughts. “The important thing to remember” I said to this young athlete, “is that none of us can stop negative thoughts, but we can absolutely choose how we relate to negative thoughts and consequently which thought patterns we strengthen and which we thought patterns we let atrophy.” One of the ways to decrease the power of negative performance stories, and their tendency to get more and more personal, permanent and pervasive, is to recognize Thoughts Are Not Facts. To help the young athlete, I said: “Try this: recognize and accept the unpleasant feeling tone of your experience, accept that the human mind has a tendency to believe that strong feelings are evidence for thoughts (common humanity), but refocus your attention on the feelings you are having in the body (embodied awareness) reminding yourself that ‘my mind is giving me the thought that ‘X is true about me’ (thought defusion)’.

Imagine a friend. I said to the young athlete: “Imagine a friend was suffering in exactly the same situation. What would you say to them when out of their disappointment and frustration with their difficulties they said to you ‘You know what? I am hopeless. I am a loser. I am never going anywhere in life’? Would you say to your suffering friend, ‘Yes you are absolutely right. You are a loser. I don’t really like you since you began struggling. I am going to ditch you and you should probably ditch yourself’?’”

The whole room of athletes was laughing, maybe a bit nervously.

“Does that sound familiar?” I asked the talented young woman.

“Only in how I speak to myself. I would never talk to other people that way” she admitted.

We so often lose our compassion for ourselves in crunch times. We not only get caught in negative stories, we treat ourselves with a cold heartedness we could not ever imagine inflicting on another human being.

The most important thing, and often the key to unhooking from negative performance stories, particularly when we have had a run of bad luck, when conditions have made it difficult for us to achieve our potential, to support ourselves, or to overcome barriers to our goals, is to activate our natural compassion systems in the body.

One easy way to do this is to shift perspective through imagining a friend, or a younger version of ourselves, or a loved one in the same experience we are in. We need to turn on our capacity for love and kindness for the human being in a difficult experience. This love when directed at one’s vulnerable self protects and short circuits some of the virulent superfluous suffering of self criticism and self abandonment that often accompany our frustration at our failures in the pursuit of our goals.

Just as we would for a friend, when we activate our natural compassion systems in the body for OURSELVES, we see the experience of struggle as having nothing to do with our willingness to offer kindness to the one caught in a painful situation.

We offer our natural generosity and compassion to ourselves most easily when we see ourselves as being part of common humanity, as being no more nor less deserving of love and protection as any other living being.

If you struggle with unhooking from negative thought patterns, with psychological flexibility, perspective taking, and responding to yourself with kindness in times of difficulty, I hope that you will investigate some of our 2019 groups or call one of the team of Third Wave Psychology registered clinicians at Ottawa River Psychology Group.

We are here to support your wellbeing and growth.

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