Here in America, we love to compete.
Some of us like to compete on the basketball floor. Others prefer to compete in sales. And other academically-minded folks push one another for intellectual dominance in publications.
The point is that no matter where you look there are individuals pushing themselves mentally and physically to achieve their best performance yet–especially when that means out-doing the next person.
What most people fail to realize, however, is that this hyper-masculine undercurrent of our competitive culture has a lasting impact on the way that we think. Many of the voices that we hear around us make their way into our heads–including the unhelpful ones.
Think back to your younger years. Picture your athletic coaches, your gym teachers, your overly strict and ambitious school teacher. Really take this second to imagine competitive role-models in your past.
Now that you have those images, play out the voices, tones, phrases, and words they used to motivate you.
When I think back, I see many coaches that were fantastic people. Individuals that taught me valuable life lessons and helped fan the competitive fire burning in my chest today.
But I also see moments when they became frustrated. When they became so enraged by my team’s performance that they would yell, break clipboards over their legs, and threaten additional sprints to provide some much needed motivation to improve our performance.
That’s the life of competitive sports. And that’s also the inner voice that I adopted to motivate myself through difficult moments.
Over time and self-reflection, I realized that my inner voice was hurting more than helping my performance. And I’m not alone.
Most people build an internal voice to help push them–to move them through adversity and keep them focused on their personal and professional goals. That inner dialogue is normal and can be helpful.
But that inner voice can also become hurtful.
When you were young and impressionable, you constructed that voice from bits and pieces of other people–coaches, teachers, and parents. But you were young enough that you may not have had the ability to filter out the good from the bad, the helpful from the unhelpful.
The problem is that the voice used for motivation can quickly become used for punishment–meaning that you’ve become your own worst enemy.
When you’re feeling down and sad, for example, your inner voice may tell you that you’re worthless. Or that you’re being lazy. Or that you’re just plain weak.
And while those thoughts may be valid from your perspective, they certainly do nothing to improve your situation. In most cases, such thoughts just make you feel worse than before.
Unfortunately, most people have learned–through their social conditioning–to associate self-punishment, or negative self-dialogue, with improved performance.
Starting when they were young children, they discovered that critiquing themselves led to improved performance. They listened to their inner coach critique themselves, which fueled them to achieve their goals.
But after a certain point, that inner coach needs to learn when to shut up.
That inner critic leads to suffering when it doesn’t know how to quietly fade into the background. And it can prevent you from improving your life by keeping you stuck in a negative cycle of failure paired with self-blame.
That’s why self-compassion is an incredible alternative that actually improves performance and emotional wellbeing long-term–no matter how competitive you are.
Self-compassion is no different than compassion you extend to love ones when they’re suffering, except that you consciously direct it back towards yourself when encountering challenges.
Dr. Kristin Neff developed three components to self-compassion. These include:
1. Self-kindness vs. Self-judgement
Self-compassion involves being warm and kind to ourselves when suffering rather than engaging in self-criticism. Next time you’re going through a difficult moment, think about how you would treat a friend in a similar situation and offer that same support to yourself.
2. Common humanity vs. Isolation
When we encounter difficult situations, our inner dialogue is often founded upon a feeling of isolation–that we are going through these challenges alone or that we’re being treated unfairly. Instead of falling into that trap, take a step back and recognize that everyone suffers, meaning that you are not alone in this discomfort.
3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification
Another important aspect of self-compassion is being mindful and noticing your thoughts. This helps you take a larger, more balanced perspective to expressing your feelings and prevents you from being overly attached to your emotions.
No matter how competitive you are, self-compassion can and will work for you. It doesn’t take away your competitive spirit, it merely changes the wording to be more aligned with your greatest good.
Yes, it will feel strange at first to treat yourself with the same warmth and support you’d give to others in similar situations. But it will feel more natural over time.
And the more that you practice bringing this mindful quality of love to yourself in spite of your inadequacies, failures, and shortcomings, the happier you’ll become. And the faster you’ll achieve your personal and professional goals.