Self-Compassion & Mindfulness: Key Elements in Better Performance


A common theme I notice in myself and in my clients is the tendency toward harsh self-criticism. Habitual thoughts about being unworthy, unlovable, incapable and never enough cause so much of our suffering. They stifle our true nature and can impact our work, relationships and mood. We are often unaware of these thoughts or tend to minimize their frequency or the impact they have on us, and we can become identified with them. This means that instead of being able to label these thoughts as thoughts, we feel that they are true.

People might cling to self-criticism with a sense that it will motivate them or make them better people and of course if things aren’t going well or we have important goals, “acceptance and compassion” can feel like giving up. But neuroscience research suggest that self-criticism actually shifts the brain into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment. This causes us to disengage from our goals, feel threatened or demoralized which can halt our ability to take action, often leading to rumination, procrastination and further self-criticism.

An article in the Berkley Science Review has good tips on how to use self-criticism constructively, including focusing on specific, changeable behaviors rather than internal, unchangeable attributes and practicing self compassionate criticism which sounds like “Yes, I made a mistake, but I’m not a horrible person.”

Self-compassion is a great medicine for most of our modern ills- it balances our fears, insecurities and isolation with positive emotions that allow us to feel calmer, more connected and confidant. Self-compassion activates our brain’s care giving and self-awareness system, which can make thoughts of being capable, worthy, accepted and confident easier to access and believe. It’s not a “weak” approach- it’s good brain health and far more motivating in the long run. So let’s talk about how to do it!


Use Mind-Body Awareness to Recognize and Soften Self-Critical Thoughts

Start right now by noticing sounds in the room, the temperature, the colors and light. Notice the texture of your cloths or a surface.

Notice your breathing – without judging it, just allowing it to be how it is. If you can, see if you can deepen your breath.

Notice the seat beneath you or your feet on the ground. Settle in as you become aware of the support that is there for you.

Is there a self-critical thought you can recognize, one that has been hounding you all day. For example, “I should have had this article done by now. I’m undisciplined.”

Just allow yourself to be with the thought, don’t try to talk your way out of it or change it just yet.

Notice how this thought makes you feel. Investigate it by noticing your feelings and tension in the body. Our body responds to these thoughts, often by constricting which mimics a fear or stress response like fight, flight or freeze. None of these help us perform optimally.

Approach these thoughts, feelings and body sensations with an attitude of curiosity, openness and non-judgment. Sit in mindful awareness for a minute and see what shifts, softens or changes by doing so.

Apply self-compassion. Is there another thought that I can also think about this situation? For example, “I didn’t sleep well last night, I’m doing pretty good considering how tired I am.”

Notice any further changes in thoughts, feelings and tension in the body as you shift your narrative about the situation.

Find an alternative strategy. For example, “I will take a 20 minute power nap, then get back to this rather than power through.” or “I will go to bed earlier tonight.”

If you are stuck on the step of still feeling the self-critical thought is true, use an inquiry process with the thought. Is it really true? Could you prove it to Judge Judy or a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt? If you really need help here, call a trusted friend, one you know will remind you how truly wonderful you are!

Mind-Body Connections for Increasing Creative Confidence and Flow

This article was originally published at TherapyToday.com where you can find many of my articles on using mind-body connections to enhance your well-being through simple, effective practices.

When was the last time you felt self-assured and excited about a current project or idea and were able to immerse yourself in the process with your full attention? “Flow” is often defined as the mental state of being completely present and fully absorbed in a task and it is a strong contributor to creativity.

The quality of attention of this state is similar to mindfulness—the intentional focusing of awareness. This single-mindedness is a large component of flow experiences and I believe that paired with somatic awareness, it could be a tool for leading us into flow states and creative process with greater ease.

The state of flow is a harmony of going with the flow (flexibility) and intentional action. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” states “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

People describe that in flow states they feel expanded or at one with the world and have let go of individual worries. They are completely focused and very satisfied with what they are doing. Athletic flow or “being in the zone” is a good example of how the mind-body connection is probably also a large part of flow experiences. We have all had times of “feeling on a roll” at work or in personal endeavors and this again is a confluence of the mind, emotions and body working together in a way that leads to feeling strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious and at the peak of our abilities.

Just as mindfulness “practice” is cumulative and intentional, Csikszentmihalyi notes that the happiness related to flow states does not simply happen: “It must be prepared for and cultivated by each person, by setting challenges that are neither too demanding nor too simple for ones abilities.”

Here is what gets in the way of flow states: Neuroticism (being highly focused on feelings of guilt, envy, anger and anxiety), self-criticism and self-doubt. Julia Cameron’s inspiring work The Artist’s Way focuses on rooting out these negative beliefs about our creative process so that we can let our “divine” creativity flow. Even if you have gone through this course, it is worth taking a look again if you find you feel stuck or uninspired currently.

These negative cognition about our abilities and our work can keep us stifled for years. Though it is often difficult to look at them, acknowledging these barriers is part of moving past them to more creative fulfillment.

Practice: Meditation in Motion

This can be practiced any time you are working on a project to become more engaged and connected. The best outcomes with flow are activities that push us but don’t feel impossible- meaning the right level of challenge. If it is too challenging, we become anxious and if it isn’t difficult enough, we could become bored.

Next time you do the activity, become more present in your body by intentionally connecting your awareness to your five senses.

Start by noticing colors and sounds in your environment as you are doing the activity or connected to what you are working on. See how much attention you can focus on sight by really noticing colors, patterns, shapes, etc. What sounds do you hear inside the space or even beyond the space?

Connect to sense of touch by noticing temperature or the surface you are standing or sitting on. Notice your feet touching the ground, maybe even press your toes into the ground. Even if you are writing and not moving in this activity, sense the feeling of the pen in your hand or the weight of the pen or the smoothness of the keys on the keyboard.

Expand your awareness to other sensations in the body by noticing your feet again and bringing your awareness “inside” your feet. Do you feel any tingling, pulsing, warmth, cold or other sensations? Remember, the goal is to notice not judge.

Bring your awareness inside your hands and notice sensations there. Now see if you can do a full body scan in this way- starting at the head, moving down the body to the feet, even while still moving or working.

Practice focusing your attention on the five senses, as well as sensations in the body, for as long as you can. If you forget or drift, bring your mind gently back to that focus. Notice if paying attention this way increases your sense of ease in the activity.

Being fully present this way generally leads to feeling more calm and safe in our own skin as our attention drops away from thoughts of worry or doubt. As we shift attention from uncertainty, space opens up for creative thinking and a sense of knowing what we are doing might arise.

To clear self doubt and focus on increasing creative flow, check out my guided imagery audio “Creative Fire: Energize and Renew Your Creative Passion and Confidence” available at my website or on InsightTimer.com.