We all know that having bad days in the practice room is normal. Yet the knowledge that failures and setbacks are inevitable does little to ease the frustration of being stuck on a plateau--or even regressing--with no idea how to get back on track. With a big audition on the horizon, waking up and having a bad sound day can make it tempting to mutter "I'm never going to get this" or "It's hopeless, why do I even bother?"
Of course, this only makes us feel more discouraged and increases the likelihood that we'll put our instruments away and spend the day parked on the couch in our pajamas, eating Cheetos and ice cream sandwiches and watching reruns of The Office. We know this won't help our triple tonguing, but how are we supposed to keep ourselves going when nothing seems to be working?
Is harsh self-criticism the right tactic? Should we berate ourselves for procrastinating, and nitpick every little detail until everything is flawless?
Or is it best to let ourselves off the hook? To make ourselves feel better by playing through a piece that comes more easily to us instead and rationalizing that mistakes are OK because nobody is perfect?
The answer might be, actually, neither of the above.
Self-Compassion and Its Benefits
Psychologists are finding that a third strategy, known as self-compassion, might be the most effective way for us to grow into artists who are not only stronger mentally and emotionally but more capable of realizing our full potential in the long run. Indeed, this and other self-regulation practices like mindfulness, gratitude, and meditation have become increasingly commonplace among elite athletes and performers as sport and performance psychologists have embraced key ideas from the area of positive psychology.
Self-compassion is a skill that involves treating ourselves with more understanding and kindness during challenging times--the Golden Rule in reverse. Brought into mainstream awareness by Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, self-compassion has been conceptualized as having three defining characteristics. (1)
1. Being kinder toward ourselves vs. being self-critical.
2. Seeing our imperfections as part of what make us human and something we all share vs. feeling shameful and isolating ourselves because there must be something wrong with us.
3. Cultivating non-judgmental acceptance of our painful thoughts and feelings vs. dwelling on and obsessing about our limitations--or, at the other extreme, blocking out all painful thoughts, emotions, and experiences altogether.
An increasing number of studies have found that self-compassion provides numerous and wide-ranging benefits, from greater optimism and happiness to lower levels of anxiety and depression, more satisfaction with life, and less burnout, shame, and fear of failure.
Despite the many benefits, many high achievers and elite performers are hesitant to embrace the practice of self-compassion. Fearful that being more self-compassionate could take away their competitive edge and perhaps prevent them from realizing their potential, they express concerns about becoming complacent, getting stuck in a mindset of mediocrity and...