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The Link Between Self Compassion and Peak Performance

by Brad Stulberg

If you’ve ever been stuck with a crying baby you know that yelling back at it does not make matters better. It only makes them worse.

There are two skillful ways of working with a crying baby:

  1. Hold it, rock it, cradle it, and show it love.
  2. Let the baby cry it out; stop trying to intervene; and create a safe space for the baby to exhaust itself.

We’d be wise treat ourselves the same way we treat crying babies. When we mess up, fall short, break a good habit, give into a bad one, get caught in a negative thought cycle, or find ourselves stuck in a bad mood state the inclination is to yell back. We berate ourselves for failing and judge ourselves for thinking and feeling negatively. But here’s the thing: much like a crying baby, all of that berating and judging never makes things better; and it almost always makes them worse.

Research shows that individuals who react to failure with self-compassion get back on the bandwagon much more swiftly than those who judge themselves. That’s because if you judge yourself for messing up, you’re liable to feel guilt or shame, and it is often this very guilt or shame that drives more of the undesired behavior. The same is true with cognitive and emotional states: resisting an unwanted thought or feeling usually makes it stronger.

When you mess up or find yourself stuck in a rut — which you undoubtedly will, regardless of how great a performer you are, because you’re also a human — don’t add fuel to the fire. Much like a screaming baby, resist the urge to yell back and try to show yourself some love instead. If that doesn’t work, do your best to walk off the battlefield altogether. Rather than engage in the situation by telling yourself stories about yourself, try to create the space for your mind-body system to do the equivalent of “crying it out.”

One of my favorite Buddhist parables involves arrows. It goes like this: when you get hit with an arrow, the first arrow, that hurts. But it’s often the second and third and fourth arrows that hurt worse. The first arrow is something negative that’s already happened. The subsequent arrows are your reactions to the negative situation that only work to fuel the fire.

A daily practice for me is to realize when subsequent arrows are hitting (for me, usually in the form of negative thinking and self-talk) and use that as a cue to come back to the present moment and, if I can, to do so with self-compassion. It like to use some version of the mantra: “This is what is happening right now. It’s okay. I’m human. What, if any, skillful action can I take?”

It’s important to view this type of self-compassion like any other skill: don’t expect it to work right away. You’ve got to develop it over time with consistent practice. The last thing you want is to judge yourself for not being self-compassionate enough.