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The role of self-compassion in creating habits that last

There are a lot of books and articles and tips out there about how to develop and maintain habits, and they are great. For the purpose of this post, though, there’s a small yet integral piece that I think warrants deeper attention. When thinking about the process of trying to institute personal change, or the actions required upon the path of achieving a definite goal, something interesting happens when we replace fear-based action with a mindset of self-compassion. Actually, a lot of interesting things happen. Because as humans, if we begin from a place of mindfulness, empathy, and kindness, we actually put ourselves on the path of developing habits that are sustainable. And that’s really freaking exciting because that means we are capable of creating true and lasting change.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Using self-compassion to appreciate our own range of current capability

When I look at the process of achieving a goal, be it something definitive or habitual, I tend to come back to my physical fitness workouts as a bit of a blueprint.

(Some personal context: I began my physical fitness journey at the invincible age of 7, the start of my eight-year competitive soccer career. I never had to think about my own physical health during this time; it was only after I stopped playing, giving up the regular accountability to other people (a coach and a team), that the struggle began. Over the past decade, I have had to completely recalibrate what I do and think in order to feel good in my body, building myself up and breaking myself down over and over again until now, today, finally, I feel like I am in a sustainably healthy place.)

The reason for this is that training your body comes with natural physical limitations. I’m not going to run a mile in 6 minutes when I’ve never trained my body to do so. It’s just not going to happen on command, no matter how much I may want it to or how hard I push myself. That particular distance at that particular pace is outside my range of current capabilities. But it doesn’t mean I can’t get there, with work and effort and growth.

The limitations of our physical bodies are way more obvious than some of the limitations we may encounter in other areas of achieving, such as the influence of sleep, stress, and environment on goals that are primarily creativity-based. It is SO much easier to listen to our bodies, to recognize discomfort and identify where it arises and why it’s there, than it is to recognize when we’re hitting or falling under mental limitations. I can basically tell when I’m close to or have hit my push-up limit by the fact that my form is waning, my chest feels like one giant bruise, and I simply don’t have the strength to lift myself up any more. The signs of mental fatigue are much more malleable and even deceptive — it’s way easier to both underachieve and burn yourself out.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

When I realized this — the fact that in my physical training I could literally only do what my body was capable of doing at that moment, — it is hard to describe the feeling of freedom that came with it. The pressure of exactly achieving some measure of reps or laps or time was alleviated. Whatever I did during my workouts, I could only push myself within the given range that my body was capable of achieving that day. I’m calling this our range of current capability, and within the context of achieving my physical fitness goals, this perspective shift generated 4 key results for me:

1. I started starting small, the equivalent of a baby learning to crawl for the first time. And starting small, even when my set and rep and time goals were way below what I used to be capable of, became necessary and guiltless.

2. Flexibility became the norm as I listened to my body and adjusted my workouts accordingly, feeling no guilt because I could only do what my body was capable of doing on any given day.

3. I began surpassing my set and rep and time goals, regularly pushing myself into the upper range of my limitations because I wasn’t overwhelmed or defeated by unrealistic expectations.

4. I began enjoying my workouts, because I was achieving, because the goals I set for myself were actually achievable.

And now I don’t struggle with physical fitness because it is a sustainable habit that forms a pillar of my lifestyle. Even when I fall off, or have a series of crappy workouts, or fail at achieving the goals I’ve set for myself, it doesn’t prevent me from getting back up the next time. Which I think is the most crucial component to developing sustainable habits or achieving a specified goal, and is cultivated through approaching the process of achieving with self-compassion rather than with self-pressure to achieve.

Not all pressure is created equal

Understanding my workouts as having inherent physical limitations gave me an easy way to replace the pressure I would put upon myself to hit my self-imposed targets with the go-ahead to appraise myself, and whatever I was capable of doing that day, with empathy and compassion. That’s not to say that I never put any pressure on myself, it’s just that the pressure came from a different place. It came from a place of understanding and belief rather than a place of fear and doubt. And that kind of pressure is infinitely more powerful.

Pressure in and of itself is not bad. Like stress, it is actually incredibly valuable within certain levels. Pressure can be just what we need in the moment to push ourselves, or to focus, or to act successfully. But the flipside of pressure is that in excessive amounts, it can fill us up and break us down. Instead of acting as the fuel we need, pressure can stall us, paralyze us, and defeat us. The pressure that we need, because it’s borne from a place of self-compassion, is the opposite of this negative wildfire. It’s like our own special kind of super-fuel, because it comes from us and us alone and it’s within our control.

A stress performance chart that mimics Yerkes-Dodson’s Law of Arousal, which states that performance does increase with physiological and mental arousal, but only up to a point.

The fitness case study examined earlier was a fun self-reflection exercise for me, but the point of it was to demonstrate the power of self- compassion in achieving goals successfully and sustainably. Employing self-compassion when we are striving to create change is important because:

1. When we start small, we set ourselves up for success.

Setting goals that are too large or ambitious is minimizing the importance of the process. It is setting ourselves up for failure. It can be an act of self-sabotage, whether we mean it to or not. By starting small, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to succeed, and more importantly, the space to excel.

Starting small acknowledges our limitations at the outset, while simultaneously allowing us room to improve. Starting small says “I believe you can do this, and I believe you can and will grow.” Starting small is a choice we can actively make that tells our subconscious, “yeah, I believe in your ability to do this.” Because it acknowledges and respects our current reality while giving us the room to expand that reality, starting small can be an empowering act of self-belief.

Ambitious goals are wonderful. But there is a difference between setting goals that are within our current upper range of capability, and setting goals that are outside of that range. And the truth is, you won’t be able to define, let alone grow, that range until you start somewhere within it.

2. When we withhold judgment, we give ourselves permission to recognize and work within our current range of capability without shame, adapting as necessary.

When we approach our goals with self-compassion, we recognize that we’re human, and ‘failure’ derives a whole new if not irrelevant meaning. It enables us to adapt in the moment, to keep moving even if whatever we achieve that day was less than what we had set out to achieve. It recognizes the complexity of our own limitations, the mercurial nature of them, accepting them and working within them. It opens us up to learn rather than berate, and encourages us to keep going — self-compassion breeds sustainability because the pressure we put upon ourselves is grounded in belief as opposed to fear.

Self-compassion allows us to see the process of achieving as the human thing that it is. We aren’t robots, and we can’t hit specified quotas on command with the same amount of ease every day. We our human, and we adapt as needed without letting our shortcomings stop us. Some days we’ll do more than we thought we could, and some days we’ll do less. Treating ourselves with empathy and understanding on each of those days, especially on the days we fall short, is critical to hitting it all over the long-run.

Photo by Robert Baker on Unsplash

3. When we set goals that are challenging but achievable, we are much more likely to actually reach our upper range of capability.

This may seem counter-intuitive and even goes against some of the popular self-help and business advice out there (i.e. set impossible goals because you’ll rise to the occasion), but that kind of advice has spiraled me into more negativity and doubt and paralysis than I care to admit. It can easily give way to fear- and anxiety-based pressure, putting you into that upper level of burnout stress.

A super-fuel motivation effect is created when we put pressure on ourselves because we truly believe in ourselves, but to do this, the goals have to be within our current range of capability. Approaching our goals with understanding of our own limitations takes that anxious pressure and resulting overwhelm and despair off the table. By replacing it with pressure that stems from belief in our own capabilities, we are much more likely to actually push ourselves to achieve and even surpass our goals.

Additionally, when we set goals that are challenging but achievable, we give ourselves the opportunity to get into a flow experience. When we roughly match the difficulty of the task with our skill level, we are much more likely to feel capable of achieving the task. If we feel capable of achieving the task, we are much more likely to do what’s needed to accomplish it, stretching ourselves to those upper limits. The experience of achieving something that pushed us leads to feelings of accomplishment, pride, and joy. Which are much more powerful motivating emotions than fear and anxiety.

4. When we achieve our goals, we feel joy, which is a more powerful motivator than fear.

Set ourselves up for success by starting small.

Approach our goals with self-compassion so that we can act with flexibility and not let the inevitable shortcomings prevent our progress or defeat us.

Push ourselves because we’ve set goals that are challenging but achievable, which is an empowering act of self-belief.

Achieve more because we’ve set ourselves up for success, creating positive emotion that leads to fundamentally sustainable habit-building.

Replace self-pressure with self-compassion, because it’s freeing, empowering, and a fundamental ingredient to enduring change.

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