Be Nicer to Go Harder: Building Your Self-Compassion for More Grit

Hi again from Grit Land, where we have been on a 4-part journey seeking deeper understanding of that concept. I have been making the case for a few other ingredients that, if you attend to them, can increase your grit when you need it, and make it more sustainable.


In last week’s episode, I established why high performers should cultivate their inner friend in the interest of enhancing grit. It turns out that, when we have our own back during tough times, we rebound faster to baseline and beyond, while also lessening our tendency to “pile on” with recriminations, negative self-talk, and shame, all of which can facilitate our return to high performance with less pain and effort.



What is Self Compassion?


In the unpacking of this idea and sharing of strategies, I will be leaning hard on the work of Kristin Neff, a seminal researcher in this area and author of the book aptly titled, Self Compassion. I was introduced to her work about ten years ago. Like so many others, I was initially sceptical about how something so ooey-gooey sounding would enhance high performance, but over time I learned differently. In fact, I have recommended or copied more snippets from this book in the interest of helping hard-nosed athletes get out of their own way than from any other book I own.


Here’s a definition: Self-compassion is the practice of recognising that you’re imperfect, that you are struggling with something, and that you want to help yourself struggle less. It’s the practice of treating yourself as you would a good friend.


What I like about this definition is its honesty and simplicity. We’re back to that direct experience of reality. Yep, I’m imperfect and that’s the truth, not a shameful secret. At the same time, I want, as we all do, to feel better and struggle less.


Why Do We Resist?


Yet…this idea remains a stretch for some high performers who resist the thought that friendliness is the way in. Especially when the mistake is self-inflicted. It is common for performers to allow for some self-compassion in the face of some out-of-control tragedy such as the soccer player who is blind-sided and injured by a sneaky slide tackle. On the other hand, many of us reserve ourselves a special place in self-persecution hell if we are the cause of our own misfortune. The rationale seems to be that if it’s my fault, I should punish myself for screwing up in the first place.


Let’s try another idea on for size. No one, including you, wakes up in the morning planning to stick their foot in their mouth, miss the penalty kick, or run out of gas before the race is over. Yet, these things happen because (wait for it) we are imperfect.


There is no mistake, however serious, that you can make that doesn’t warrant your own compassionate support and response.


Again, let’s turn this around and consider it from the outside looking in. Your good friend, a coach, is embarrassed and apologetic for losing his temper with one of his athletes. What’s your first instinct upon witnessing his pain? To tell him that he’s an idiot and that he’s the worst coach ever? I doubt it (but if this IS your first instinct, let’s step back and have another read of this article. :)) My bet’s on you acknowledging his pain, commiserating with him on what happened, and expressing your faith in his ability to repair the relationship.


There IS a Balance


What I am advocating for is the idea that you take the time to learn from your mistakes. There is a balance between accountability and compassion. Both can and should be present. But doing a mental debrief to assess where you went wrong and considering how to fix it is a world away from endlessly replaying your personal mistake high-light reel or engaging in scorched-earth self-directed name calling and recrimination. Can you be disappointed? Sure. Sad? You betcha. Emotional reactions to being thwarted - for whatever reason - in the pursuit of an important goal are natural reactions that should be expected and accepted.


So here we are. The consequential mistake has been made, and you, imperfect human that you are, are suffering. Enter self-compassion. Here is where you get to offer yourself some friendly support. Kristin Neff recommends first a simple acknowledgement that, “yep, this is hard.” Followed by one or more of these phrases (use what works, or make up your own phrases): “I know I’ve got this.” “I’ve got my own back.” “It’ll be okay.”


I alluded to my own early dismissal of this idea until one day when I mishandled a presentation and received some disappointing feedback from some of the participants. Man, that was hard to hear. I lived for a time in a black cloud of recrimination and negativity. At first, I tried to pivot straight to learning and was on the road to stoically vowing to raise my presentation game, when I realised that I was still feeling pretty heavy and listless.


This time, I really stopped. I literally put my hand over my own heart and said to myself, “This. Is. Hard.” Like I meant it, which I did. Because it was. And in the time it took to perform and react to that acknowledgement…I felt better. Lighter. It was as if this simple verbal interchange allowed my emotions to catch up and be recognised. Didn’t change a damned bit of reality - I still underperformed and knew it. But I could move on and learn from the experience in a more philosophical, less painful way.


Self-Compassion's Three Pillars


Kristin Neff’s research suggests that self-compassion has three pillars: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. We have explored the idea of self-kindness as being able to talk to and treat yourself like you would a good friend. Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment, aware of and available to what is happening without reactivity or judgment. It makes sense that without mindful awareness, it is far more difficult to detect your suffering in the first place and know when self-compassion is needed. Common humanity is the idea that we are not unique in our imperfections and failures. This is important to keep in mind to combat a tendency to get into our own heads and spin a “I’m the worst ________ in the world” kind of narrative. Keeping this “whole of humanity” perspective can lighten our psychic load in tough times. Everyone goes through times like these.


Interestingly, Neff also advocates a healthy dose of this same medicine to combat the very human tendency for us - when things are going well - to look down and mentally distance ourselves from those less fortunate. Consider your emotions and behaviour when you see a homeless person. Is your attitude one of empathy? Do you acknowledge, “there but for the grace of God go I?” Do you make eye contact? Or do you find yourself distancing yourself in your thoughts and behaviours, maybe to make yourself feel better and less uncomfortable?


When we can see ourselves more often as part of (dare I say) this grand human experiment, we can be comforted by knowing others experience what we do and we are not uniquely flawed. And on the other hand, maybe we can also check some of our moral superiority at the door when confronting others’ misfortunes. We can learn to be easier on ourselves…and maybe even see others’ successes and failures with fresh eyes and perspective.


So if grit is the sandpaper that provides the traction to keep making progress toward those long-held, hard-to-reach goals, self-compassion is the safety net that catches you when you fall and gets you back on the grit track faster and with less emotional baggage.


Thanks once again for reading, and I would love to hear your thoughts!


I provide individual and group coaching on how you or your team can learn more about getting out of your own way and working with your mind for more frictionless and sustainable performance. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com.


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