Building resilience through kindness
Exercise improves your self-esteem! This statement has been championed as one of the reasons to exercise as long as I’ve been involved in the fitness industry. But is the pursuit of high self-esteem actually good for your emotional wellbeing?
Self-esteem relies heavily on self-evaluation and social comparison to make you feel better about yourself. So, for me to feel good about myself I must either rate myself better than another person at something I feel is worthy, or feel I have something of worth that they don’t have. When it’s put that way, it doesn’t seem a healthy or balanced way to channel your energy into maintaining a high self-esteem, and surely will have consequences for personal relationships and your own mental health?
There must be another way. I believe that Kristin Neff’s theory of self-compassion offers us this.
WHAT IS SELF-COMPASSION?
Self-compassion is a psychological construct that has similarities to some Buddhist teachings, but has also got a scientific research base to back up the theory. It is made up of three components:
1) Self-kindness: This requires us to not engage in unhelpful harsh self-judgements or self-criticism. For example, internalising anger and hatred towards the way you look compared to others, or blaming yourself for failures you have no control over.
2) Common Humanity: This requires us to be able to frame our own experiences as part of the shared human experience rather than feeling disconnected from others. For example, it’s important to recognise that all people make mistakes, fail sometimes, and have feelings of inadequacy – it’s all part of the human condition and not unique to ourselves.
3) Mindfulness: Being open and aware of our own suffering and taking a balanced approach to negative experiences. This stops painful feelings being ignored or exaggerated. For example, when something bad happens to us a natural reaction is to judge ourselves, try to fix the problem, or throw ourselves into tasks that will distract from the pain – a self-compassionate approach would require us first to allow self-kindness and accept that sometimes bad things happen.
SELF-COMPASSION VS. SELF-ESTEEM
HOW TO PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION
Practice? Yes, to master the practice of self-compassion you actually need to do some work to help change the way you think and change the way you act. Think of it like working out: your coach gives you a new programme; at first it feels strange and you find it difficult to do, but after many repetitions it becomes easier and feels more natural.
Cut the negative self-talk: Keeping it health and fitness related, how many of us regularly stand in-front of a mirror and internally criticise ourselves for how we look? That if we looked like [insert body idol] we’d be much happier and life would be different! What if I told you that negative self-talk has the same effect on the brain as someone shouting abuse at you? So, STOP DOING IT!
Now, this doesn’t mean the opposite is to blow smoke up your own backside and lie to yourself, it means when you catch yourself thinking negatively about yourself, stop and try to reframe the thoughts into something positive – like, ‘I’m not happy that I feel unfit, so I’m going to take ownership of my health and do some regular exercise’.
Challenge your stories: Continuing the health and fitness theme – a common story I hear all the time in consultations is, ‘I’m just not the kind of person who can stick to something, as I don’t have willpower’. This is just a story you tell yourself and have decided to identify with; it doesn’t mean you are programmed to act this way for the rest of your life.
To challenge a story like this, I would ask a person to list examples of all the times they have managed to stick to something in their life, or times where they have shown real determination to overcome tasks that they’d found difficult. It’s always surprising how little the evidence backs up the negative stories we hold onto.
We are, after all, just a representation of our habits, so creating new ones will take time and effort. But once a story like that is successfully challenged, a mindset shift will allow new healthy and productive habits to be formed.
Recognising when we’re in pain and need to stop: Many driven individuals throw themselves into activities to distract themselves from pain they’ve had in their lives – in the fitness world we often see this behaviour in exercise addicts. The fear that someone has about facing up to their pain is that it will kill their drive and determination, and if they stop then everything around them will crumble – but in fact the opposite is true. Stopping to experience the emotion, allowing time to heal, and freeing up some positive head space, can help you enjoy the activities you spend so much time doing, and actually progress further rather than being consumed by anxiety and guilt to keep doing them.
Understand relativity and what you do have: This relates to common humanity and sharing the human experience. It’s not a case of dismissing any pain you feel because someone else has it worse; rather, it is about trying to put into perspective where you are and what you have. It’s always important when things don’t go to plan that you remember all the good things you have in life, and all the people around you who care for you – because that’s what matters most.
Mindfulness: Of course, we all could just download a mindfulness app and listen to it each night and not really put anything into action – or instead we could just take positive steps to be in the moment. This could be something as simple as recognising how our body feels whilst we exercise and beginning to learn what feels good and bad, or it could be more complex, e.g. stopping being guided by long term goals or driven by negative past experiences, and living more for now.
HOW CAN IT HELP YOU BUILD MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE?
When I first was introduced to the concept of self-compassion, I admit I was a little bit sceptical because I’ve always been someone who just gets on with it. I was concerned that if I spent too much time challenging my stories, or dealing with historical emotions, that I’d lose my determination and drive that had seemingly served me well in life (not just in the gym).
With regards to my own health and fitness, I don’t think you can classify yourself as fit unless you are looking after both mental and physical health. So, for the former it’s been a revelation and, if anything, has increased my mental and emotional resilience for what life can throw at me. When it comes to my approach to my own training or nutrition, it’s allowed me to make rational decisions about how often I train, the intensity I train at, and how I set my goals. When I have too much on, I won’t beat myself up about not exercising or needing to do a softer session to conserve energy. When I have the time and head space to up the ante, I do so and can enjoy it.
I’d highly recommend taking a self-compassionate approach to your wellbeing and building this practice into your life. From a scientific perspective, studies show it has been linked to increased positive health behaviours and mastery of goal orientation. It has also been linked to a reduction in anxiety, depression, self-consciousness, and social physique anxiety.
So, for the keen and not so keen exercisers amongst us, it can have a real positive effect on your approach to your own health – but more than that, it’s a practice that can improve many personal aspects of our lives and help to make us more content and happy with who we are.