Over the past six weeks, I’ve been trying to get into the habit of running. In terms of consistency, I’m an absolute failure. Of the 42-days, I’ve run seven of them. When I purchased my running shoes I figured I would jog a few times a week, otherwise, how could I justify buying new gear?
I should have known this would end up poorly. Every year or so, I get an urge to start running, and every year, I fail to make it a habit. This year I was spurred on by seeing my closest friends participate in a triathlon. All I could think was if they could do it, why can’t I? But, I know why. It’s the same reason every time. Since age 14, every type of cardio aside from biking has been a miserable act of fighting my body.
At 14, I had an open heart surgery combined with reconstructive surgery to fix my sternum. My doctors told me it would be at least two years before I could think about playing sports and contact sports were out of the question.
Two years isn’t that long, but during that time, I replaced the few sports I played with even more time on the computer. I played five to six hours of games every night, so, by the time I was ready for physical activity, there was no “room” in my schedule.
In college, one of my closest friends suggested we start working out. I learned to love it quickly, and it made me feel as though nothing truly off-limits for me. From there, I started biking and climbing. Running seemed like an easy, and obvious, addition.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. My first “run” lasted roughly a quarter of a mile and ended with me walking home in defeat. This scenario would replay countless times as I got older. Each time I’d approach it with renewed vigour and end with a tirade of self-criticism.
What made it genuinely miserable was the fact I’d become more athletic each year. I could bike further and lift more, but I couldn’t manage to jog a few blocks without feeling like I’d pass out. And, with each attempt, the nagging voice in the back of my head, telling me what a terrible idea this would turn out only grew louder and more vicious.
Before I started this attempt at running, I had a frank discussion with myself. If I was going to commit, I needed to change my approach. Physically, I knew how things would turn out. My lungs and legs are weak; I wasn’t going to get far. Mentally, there was no reason for me to treat myself so poorly. Even if I did give up again, I don’t deserve heaps of abuse. I wouldn’t treat my friends that way, so why should I treat myself in that manner?
Psychologists and philosophers call this change in attitude, self-compassion. A concept I stumbled upon when researching ways to improve self-control. [L]
The first research paper I read would highlight the role acceptance plays in response to personal errors. Individuals high in self-compassion had an easier time remaining focused on their goals. That extra bit of focus is crucial.
When we participate in self-deprecation, we lose sight of the individual behavior we should focus on and start to pick apart the individual. It becomes less about a single misstep and more about demeaning a person. Not only does this lower self-esteem, but it removes the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.
Part of forming habits and enhancing self-control is eliminating the barriers to success. When we make a mistake, we want the clarity of mind to notice that error and work to rectify it. This attitude is precisely what self-compassion offers. Instead of belittling our behavior, we respond with encouragement. We focus on the barrier that prevented our desired action and think of ways to it from happening.
My running habit presents an excellent example. I might decide in the afternoon that an evening run sounds perfect, but suddenly it’s time for bed and I only have a cursory memory of making that decision. When I respond with kindness and a gentle nudge that I can do better tomorrow, it allows me to remain clear-headed. I can think about the root cause of my self-control lapse, rather than wallow in self-pity.
In the face of failure, our gut reaction may be self-deprecation, but there’s strong evidence that will do more harm than good. If you genuinely want to overcome a setback, you need to respond with acceptance and self-compassion.