We Fall Short A Lot (and one thing we can do about it)

Recently, I was listening to one of my favorite psychology podcasts - on it, they interview guests after having the guest go through a research-based intervention. In this episode, the guest admitted that they did not do the intervention they signed up to do, even though they had intended to do it. For a moment, you could feel the tension between the host and guest. After all, the point of the episode was to discuss the intervention and how it made them feel! Skillfully, they were able to get into a discussion of what got in the way of the guest doing the practice, but they also got into something I found much more interesting. How do we treat ourselves when we fail? How do we treat ourselves when we fall short of our expectations of ourselves or the expectations of others? And what can we do about it?

Personally, I find these questions to be a bit more intriguing than just identifying healthy things we can do and then figuring out how to build healthy habits. We all tend to know we can do more and be better, but the way we treat ourselves is what matters both to our health and to how successful we will be in accomplishing goals.

Kristen Neff, a researcher on self-compassion, has been one of many that have been able to show that self-compassion is the key to moving forward in the midst of falling short of our expectations. She states that we must make three main moves: 1) Self-Judgment to Self-Kindness, 2) Isolation to Common Humanity, and 3) Avoidance or Over-Identification to Mindfulness. If we do these moves, we will become better at practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion enables us to understand that we are all human, we all have painful experiences or emotions, we all mistakes, we all fail, etc...and there options for us to open up towards our suffering with warmth and care, allow our pain to exist, and then actively work to comfort and soothe ourselves.

As you can imagine, we could go into a lot of depth with these concepts (and that is what therapy is often all about), but for the purposes of this short blog, I will illustrate it with a very small example. In the past, I trained for and ran a marathon. It was something I enjoyed but also something that was very difficult. As I ran longer and longer distances, I found I was judging myself for not being stronger or running faster. At times, I even scolded myself in my head as a means of motivating myself. The scolding would work - for maybe half of a mile - then I would be worn out and even more negative towards myself. Instead, I had to make Neff’s first move from Self-Judgment to Self-Kindness. I listened to my body’s signals, I encouraged myself, and I was generally kind to myself. I worried I might get slower, but kindness also helped me more fully understand and work towards my goals. Self-kindness made me faster and helped me meet my goals.

I also was able to move from isolation to common humanity on many of these runs. Typically, I was running alone. If I had a conflict at work or something had gone poorly, I would often start the run with a feeling of isolation. The amazing thing about isolation and common humanity is that it does not matter if you are physically with people or not - you can feel either way. As I would run, I would typically be able to process how similar my suffering was to others. Whether it was processing how my stressors of the day were shared with others or even just thinking about the commonality of all of us getting physically tired, it would help me realize I was connected.

Lastly, running is one of my favorite avenues for learning to move from over-identification or avoidance to mindfulness. As I was training, I had several injuries. I started to wonder if I was reading my body’s physical cues correctly, and I went to physical training to understand my body better and to care for it. As I learned physical habits, I also worked on being a more mindful runner. Mindfulness helped me to notice pain and negative feelings by turning towards them without avoidance, aversion, and without magnifying them. Mindfully running was key, as I had to learn how to effectively observe and notice what my body was telling me.

Self-compassion, then, can be our roadmap for navigating how to treat ourselves and our feelings in the midst of failures or setbacks. If you are unsure where to start - perhaps just ask yourself: what is one way I can be kind to myself today? Taking it a step further you might ask: what is an area of my life in which I am being especially hard on myself and what might it look like for me to be a bit more soothing and comforting towards myself?

-Dr. Andrew Cuthbert