Do you sometimes get down on yourself or are your worst critic? It is a common thing to do, even amongst “tough” people as many of our clients are: Olympic athletes and “hard-nosed” individuals as often found in the US Army and Navy, on Wall Street and within NBA and NFL teams. Building tenderness is a powerful, transformative practice that may seem “soft” but delivers very strong, tangible results.
The feeling of never “being good enough”, whatever you do, and constantly being hard on yourself is common amongst many high performers. We have learned this from working with Olympic athletes, Wall Street leaders, doctors with the NIH and many successful entrepreneurs. However, we are rarely aware of the harsh, judgmental voice in our head (VOH), so we rarely question how it speaks to us. We may even believe, as many athletes do, that talking this way to ourselves - in a way we certainly would never talk to a friend - may be the secret to success and push us perform better. Evidence shows though that instead, this tends to lead to underperformance. When people are being perfectionistic about something and they don’t perform well or exactly as they expected – they often fall apart and have a hard time bouncing back.
When we build compassion towards ourselves, the effect is usually the opposite and rather transformative – as our work with athletes has shown: when they expected that not every match would go as they planned, they got better at dealing with setbacks and bounced back a lot quicker.
What stops us from being tender towards ourselves?
Giving up on self-attacks, instead practicing kindness and understanding towards ourselves often feels like it was a bad idea and self-indulgent. We worry it may lead to bad outcomes or that we won’t be able to succeed. We may even think that this way of being will make us weak or complacent, we may become narcissistic or selfish. The word “tenderness” alone is often falsely associated with “being weak”.
However, we have learned from our work and extensive research that self-compassion leads to great outcomes, and that it is far more effective for personal motivation than self-punishment. Some of the positive effects are:
- We bounce back quicker after a set-back and become more resilient.
- We experience less burnout.
- We experience more happiness.
- It leads to better health.
- We learn being more compassionate towards others. As a result of being less self-centered, we become more other-centered.
- We build better relationships.
The struggle we face often lies in the way we compare ourselves to others and judge ourselves based on that perception. We think others have the perfect life, they don’t struggle, they are better than us. We can’t see beyond the surface and fail to realize that everyone suffers and struggles.
Tenderness as part of ETA
ETA is a powerful strategy to return to inner balance – comprised of the 3 elements Explore, Tenderness and Acceptance. Tenderness is the part that focuses on being gentle towards ourselves and recognizing that life itself is imperfect, that we as humans are imperfect. It means bringing balance to the strong emotions we may experience, to neither suppress or exaggerate them. Mindfulness is an important part of this strategy – bringing attention to our physical sensations, emotions and the voice in our heads in a non-judgemental, non-reactive way.
The Practice of Tenderness
Living life is hard, we have a lot going on, many relationships to manage, much work to get done. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and as a result, be hard on ourselves. Building tenderness is a strong antidote and an important tool. A great way to practice tenderness is using and repeating 5 anchoring statements - consciously making them the voice in our head and the way we talk to ourselves. We call this practice the Metta or lovingkindness/ compassion practice.
It may feel weird and artificial, even mechanical at first and not very natural, but just stay with it. The instruction is simple: just say these phrases to yourself repeatedly, and try to feel the phrase for yourself.
- May I be happy and peaceful in this moment.
- May I feel good about myself, just as I am.
- May I be free of suffering, both inner and outer suffering.
- May I be strong and healthy of mind and body and spirit.
- My I live with ease and grace upon the earth.
Repeat these phrases often, similar to a mantra, and try to sink into the feeling of each phrase as you say them. It is normal to wonder if it sounds sane saying this over and over, you may even wonder if this was a waste of time. Regardless, just stay with it, and over time and in unexpected moments, you will experience feeling more tenderness towards yourself. A good exercise is to envision yourself as your 6- to 10-year-old self as you say these anchoring phrases, which helps open your heart to tenderness towards yourself. Another powerful practice is extending these phases to other people, silently wishing them upon them.
Check our podcast page for more teachings on mindfulness practice!