Self-Compassion How it helps performance, and how it helps general well-being

Dane Barclay, Psychologist, Bellarine Psychology

5 minute read

Often someone may have a belief that "if I am more self-compassionate, I won’t be so driven, I won’t push myself!"

It’s a pretty fair statement; but we need to look a lot deeper, and also look at the evidence of how it actually works for us when are compassionate vs when we are not compassionate.

In the sports context, most of the people are highly driven, caring, self-sacrificing people. They continue to strive for the betterment of themselves and for the people around them. Whilst these traits in themselves may not seem like a problem, they can be a double edge sword – affecting your external actions (i.e. to feel good/less stressed) and internal actions (i.e. blaming oneself and feeling worse inadvertently increasing your own stress).

One of the things that impedes performance AND 'well-being' is self criticism – especially if you tie your happiness into your self-esteem.

Compassion can often be interpreted that if you engage in compassionate self talk, you will not strive as hard, you will not push yourself, or make yourself accountable. Counter-intuitively, self-compassion actually makes it easier to get back on task, be it in a performance sense, or in a day to day sense.

Firstly, what Self-Compassion is:

Self-compassion means being understanding toward ourselves when we fail, or feel inadequate, rather than trying to ignore our pain or criticise ourselves. Self-compassionate people accept both rationally and emotionally that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life stressors is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when life falls short of set expectations (or when they fail themselves).

Have a think about how you would deal with a loved one who didn’t live up to their own expectations (it’s often good to think of someone under the age of 6), how would you treat them? How would your tone of voice be? What would you say?

It is often markedly different to how we talk to ourselves. There is a reason for this of course, one of these reasons is the a belief that we should have our ‘stuff’ sorted as an adult, we are far more flexible of younger children, when we are guiding them in life… but for ourselves somewhere along the line, we lose that sense of perspective, and treat ourselves quite critically, as a way to ensure we never make an error (or the same error) again.

By taking the perspective of a compassionate person to yourself, you are more willing (and more quickly) to move on to other important things, rather than holding on to high criticism. It’s helpful to remember in these moments, it’s not whether thoughts are right or wrong, its how do they help you there and then?

Being self-compassionate means taking a balanced approach to managing our experiences. You’re not trying to get rid of emotions or suppress them (you can’t), however it is helpful if you are willing to observe your negative thoughts and emotions with openness, so they become less intense– ultimately, you can unhook from them quicker and you can get back to whats actually important to you in the present moment, rather than getting caught up in the reasons why 'you're not good enough' or have 'failed again'.

From a neurobiological perspective, the stress chemicals of cortisol and adrenaline are activated in times of anxiety or stress, not just in the external world, but in our interior world – that is, when we are speaking critically to ourselves.

If we are stressed, we are more likely to engage in behaviours that move us away doing things that are aligned to our values.

The Benefits of Self-Compassion:

Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, as well as less stress and anger. And all this helps you focus on the important things, rather than being up in your head! So it becomes easier for you to enhance your performance, be that in sport, or relationships, because you are completing the goals you want to and being the person you actually want to be! This in itself enhances your well-being and contentment… All of a sudden you feel good because you are doing the things you want to, and you’re finally dropped the need to chase a feeling of happiness all the time.

A little note on self-esteem

Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in numerous ways.

Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth – how much we like ourselves. Self-esteem is often dependent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances and outcomes we cannot always control. It’s exhausting 'chasing' self- esteem.

So if self-esteem is generated by achieving things that we set out to do all the time…and the importance of these things influences how much we criticise ourselves when we fail to do them… it’s almost impossible to feel good consistently.

I like to ask the question when people get caught up in self-criticism: "How’s that actually working out for you?" If all it serves to do is make you feel awful and more stressed, and take you longer to get back to the behaviours you would do when you feel good, i.e. committing to what’s important for you, than its probably not helpful. It’s understandable that we do it, yet it in of itself is not actually helpful.

This is the beauty of self-compassion, you let go of the need to feel good all the time, and it makes it easier to be more committed to the things that are important to you, when you feel stressed, anxious, or frustrated at yourself that you haven’t met your own expectations.

Dane Barclay


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