Motivated by an uber fit, overly tan, 20- something woman on facebook, I decided to jump into a 30-day high intensity fitness challenge. Just 15-minutes a day, she said. Make the commitment and I would be fit, hot, and 20 (okay, she didn’t really promise that last one).
Done. Subscribe. Email sent. Then, like any good hopeful human looking to make a big change, I gave myself a pep talk. Something along the lines of, “You’ve got this, Tiff! It’s only 15-minutes a day – Super easy. You can totally carve our 15-minutes a day. You deserve this. Go, Girl! Go!”
Day One – Check.
Day Two, Three, Four – Check. Check. Check.
Day Five – Oops. That day went by in a flash. At the end of the day, after not carving out 15-minutes, I reengaged in a more “motivating” pep talk. “Tiff, it’s only 15-minutes. What is wrong with you that you pack your day so freaking full you can’t even carve out a measly 15-minutes. Do this. Make it happen.”
Day Six – Check.
Day Seven, Eight, and Nine – I was out of town and had no internet connection. I had no service on my phone. I couldn’t get my workouts. The self-critic set in full bore. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say my self-critic made Cinderella’s wicked step mother look like Mother Theresa. Shame settled in, right next embarrassment and disappointment.
Day Ten – Back home. I put the high intensity workout off all day. No 15-minute workout. Once I put my daughter to bed, I did my normal walk but felt even more out shape, made heavier by guilt. I got back from my walk and “unfriended” uber fit girl on facebook.
My self-critic just shook her head, folded her arms and said, “I told you so.”
Sound Familiar? My guess is that it probably does. According to research most people find self-criticism – the messages of shame, disappointment, and guilt – easier to believe than our own words of self-compassion. Why? Most of us believe that true motivation consists of making ourselves feel so bad that we have no other option but to comply with our goals. If we guilt and shame ourselves enough, we’ll just have to feel motivated to actually do the thing we strive to do. Right?
Actually, not only is our line of thinking wrong, it’s completely sabotaging our path to true and lasting change. According to research, not only are self-critical people less likely to succeed, we experience larger set backs and are more likely to give up all together. So just to make that really clear: When I use self-criticism as my motivating factor to influence my behavior in making positive change, I am actually more likely to not just fail, but fail big time, and give up all together.
Brain scans show that when we engage in self-criticism the areas of brain activated are the areas responsible for self-inhibition (the area that holds us back from taking action) and the system that is activated when we experience punishment and threats from others (McGonigal, 2012). This second system is deep in the brain, which means that we are activating our own fight, flight, and freeze survival mechanisms. Additionally, this area of the brain is not a “thinking” area – it is purely engaged in survival. This area does not engage in problem-solving. Clearly, these are not the areas of the brain that aid us in change. Simply put, we aren’t moving towards positive change when we criticize ourselves.
When neuroscientists executed the brain scans again and asked participants to use self-compassion, very different areas of the brain were activated. The primary areas of the brain activated during self-compassion are the caregiving systems and the systems that support self-awareness (McGonigal, 2012). Meaning, when we are in these areas of the brain, we are cognitive of our actions – we are not on auto-pilot nor are we in survival brain. Additionally, we feel safe, connected to our feelings of safety, a connection to others, and a sense of belonging.
When we are in this brain state, we are much more open to hearing feedback, to problem-solve, and to consider our behavior and its alignment with our goals. Vitally imperative to transformation, this brain state allows us to reconnect with our goals if we find that we have strayed.
When we move from self-criticism, which is a natural default system of the brain, to self-compassion, we shift brain states and set ourselves up to succeed – to transform – to reach our goals. Self-compassion allows us to align with our highest intentions.
So what is self-compassion? It’s NOT not holding ourselves accountable. We can have self-accountability AND treat ourselves with kindness. “Self-compassion is extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering” (Neff, 2011). Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research has suggested that self-compassion is composed of three main elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
- Self-Kindness: Go to the 30, 000 foot view of yourself. See a failure for what it is – a poor choice of behavior. Using awareness and insight, remove your “self” from the equation and address the behavior. This is a thing you did – this poor choice of behavior isn’t concrete proof that you are stupid, idiotic, and bound for a life of misery. This is one step backwards (or 10 steps backwards). You can remind yourself that you are strong, motivated, loved and have loads of support. When faced with this again, you will breathe deeply, remember this feeling, and make a different decision.
- Common Humanity: Every human being on this plant, yes, even the uber fit, overly tan, 20- something woman from facebook, knows what failure and disappointment feel like. As Kristen McGonigal (2011) says, in her audio series, The Neuroscience of Change, our own experience of setbacks does not say anything about who we are as a unique human being. All it says is that we are human. We are not unique in this. This does not define us.
- Mindfulness: We feel our failure and stay present with it. We feel the disappoint and frustration for our behavior and we are present with it. By looking at it and feeling it, we don’t bury it and allow it to fester into shame and blame. We don’t hide it by diving into 10 other poor, self-sabotaging behaviors. We accept it. This acceptance allows our brain to stay in thinking mode. In this place we can accept feedback better, brainstorm different choices, and problem-solve new behaviors.
Research tells us very brief trainings in self-compassion can have positive effects on helping people reach their goals. In fact, even those participants that received self-compassion training, but stated they felt inauthentic in being self-compassionate, still reported the same level of positive benefits (McGonigal, 2012).
Research conducted by neuroscientist and psychologists alike tell us we can learn to shift from self-criticism to self-compassion. So…are you willing to try?
Here are two activities to get you started:
- Build Self-Awareness: Start with simply being aware. Listen to those voices in your head that speak to you. Are they more criticizing or compassionate? When you have a stressor during the day, who (the self-critic or the voice of self-compassion) steps in to “motivate” you? To guide you? To correct your course? What feelings to you feel when you experience failure?
- Be your own friend: Consider a failure you’ve had or one you fear. Write down your own internal dialogue about this failure. What would you say to yourself? Then, pretending a dear friend, a child, or a parent had this same failure, write down how you would approach them about the failure. What would you say to them? Compare the two conversations. Reread what you wrote to your dear friend but replace your name with theirs.
McGonigal, K. (2012). The Neuroscience of Change. Luisville, Colorado, USA: True Sounds.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York, New York, USA: Harper Collins.
Tiffany Grimes is Founder and Lead Certified Professional Coach with Evolutionary Consulting.
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