You are your greatest gift
I am writing this some 21-months into a global pandemic. In that time we have experienced a mixture of different emotions and moods. The early stages saw many of us sprinting through the first few months, thinking (and likely desperately hoping) that the finish line was almost in sight. Yet, some 21 months later, here we are, many people in a very different emotional state to the one they found themselves in at the start of the pandemic, in spring 2020.
In the early stages of the pandemic, some of us were being encouraged to learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. Perhaps we were hoping to make the most of working from home to embark on a new fitness regime. Yet, data from January 2021 suggests that most of us did far less during the third lockdown than we did in the first. While approximately one fifth of people were exercising more than they did during the first lockdown, more than twice that number were doing less. Similarly, for those that had embarked on new hobbies, many had given up as the challenges of the third and, in some ways, more draining lockdown took hold.
As we approach another year gone, there may have been a temptation to look back on our accomplishments (or lack thereof) and berate ourselves for not having done enough; not having achieved enough. A fundamental truth, that we often overlook, is that we almost always do the best we can with the resources that we have at any given moment in time. It may be tempting to look back and rue a lack of progress in a certain sphere of our life, blaming it on a lack of grit or a lack of discipline on our part. Yet, it would be a mistake to double down on ourselves with harsh words in the hope that we might do better next time. With 2022's New Year's resolutions around the corner, it is an important lesson to heed.
Many of us are taught from a young age that discipline is crucial to our long-term success. I was thankfully born too late to experience corporal punishment in a state school and never attended a private institution which was slower to ban the draconian and ineffective practice. However, I did grow up in a household where children were to be seen but not heard. Strict rules were enforced to ensure discipline was upheld in the family unit, and respect was to always flow upwards but rarely did it flow in equal measure downwards. My experience is not an isolated incident, and many more will have likely fared far worse.
It is relatively easy to understand how many of us, as a result of such upbringings, will believe that discipline and, on occasion, harsh criticism are a necessary rite of passage into adulthood. As adults, we have hopefully developed a more mutually respectful relationship with the adults who oversaw our upbringing – one in which we are treated as equals. However, there is a risk that in place of those old imbalanced relationships, we have created a fractious relationship within our self – one which often bares remarkable similarities to some of the relationships from our childhood – ruled by discipline and harsh self-criticism. We might think it holds us in good stead and keeps us gritty, but the reality is likely much different.
An interesting piece of research from the field of sports psychology looked at how people reacted to outside influence when their performance had dipped significantly, and they were stuck in a rut. The researchers tried various different approaches to see which would be the most effective in reversing that rut. The researchers recruited both close friends and arch-rivals to dish out motivational advice; some in the form of actual encouragement; others in the form of harsh criticism.
The results were telling. It turned out that when friends deployed criticism in an attempt to motivate their friend, it backfired considerably. Instead of motivating them to dig themselves out of the rut that they were in, it only served to amplify their lack of self-belief and undermine their performance further. When their friends chose encouraging words on the other hand, their performance bounced back. Participants were able to pick themselves back up and dust themselves off more readily, when they received encouraging words from a friend.
Interestingly, it turned out that whilst encouragement was by far the most effective way of motivating someone to improve their performance when caught in a downward spiral, there was one exception. If an arch-rival happened to deploy criticism, it had a galvanising effect - criticism from someone we loathe can actually spur us on and help us to bounce back from setbacks. We probably didn’t need a scientist to tell us that we like to prove people who we don’t like wrong.
However, when thinking about the relationship we have with ourselves, while we may not be best friends with our self, it’s unlikely that we view ourselves as our own arch-rival. Meaning that we too need to be kind to ourselves, and give ourselves encouragement, if we wish to remain gritty and optimise our chances of bouncing back from whatever setbacks we may have faced these past 21 months. There are now literally thousands of research papers looking at the benefits of choosing self-compassion over criticism. You will be hard pressed to find any scientific literature extolling the benefits of being overly hard on yourself. Yet too often we are seduced by the intoxicating lies that discipline and self-criticism promise us; or mistrusting of self-compassion, for fear it will make us lazy.
To the doubters and naysayers, it is not self-compassion that makes us lazy, but drowning ourselves in self-pity which renders us helpless to strive for change. Self-pity keeps us stuck and drags us down, while self-compassion can help propel us upwards. Self-compassion acknowledges whatever hardship we may be experiencing. It holds up a mirror to our suffering and enables us to take ownership of it, so that we may offer ourselves the comfort and support that we need to move forward with greater resilience. Self-pity, on the other hand, weighs us down and convinces us that we are alone in our suffering. Self-pity also leads us to believe that we are a victim of circumstances which we can do little or nothing to change.
Self-compassion is about noticing that we may be feeling anxious, rather than getting angry at ourselves for feeling weak (as a result of anxious feelings). It’s acknowledging our pain, instead of trying to suppress or deny its very existence. It’s giving ourselves a pep talk when we’ve hit rock bottom or pausing to give ourselves a virtual hug after an embarrassing faux pas - a faux pas where we wish the ground would swallow us whole rather than us attempt to face the world again for fear of ridicule.
As we emerge from 2021, there may be a myriad of reasons why we didn’t feel like the success we should have been. However, before engaging in self-sabotaging trash talk with ourselves, why don’t we pause and acknowledge that we did the best we could with the resources that we had at our disposal in that moment. Don’t give into the temptation of self-criticism. It’s ok to be disappointed and want to do better, what’s not ok is beating ourselves up emotionally for feeling disappointed or not having done better. When we’re feeling down, rather than throw dirt in our own face, why not aim to speak to ourselves as we might a good friend in our predicament. From there we can assess what is important to us, where we may have gone wrong and, most importantly, how we can do better in future. Invariably, we are our greatest gift. Be kind to yourself.