Don’t Beat Yourself Up – Mark Leary | Aeon Essays

‘You never stop grieving...’ Laurent Fignon lost the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds after more than 3000 km of racing. Photo by Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

‘You never stop grieving…’ Laurent Fignon lost the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds after more than 3000 km of racing. Photo by Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Learning to be kind to yourself when you (inevitably) make mistakes could have a remarkable effect on your happiness

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This photo broke my heart.  In 1989, after nearly 2000 miles of riding, Laurent Fignon lost the Tour de France by 8 seconds – 8 SECONDS!.  In beating-yourself-up-for-life terms, that’s like being the Beatles original drummer.  I can’t imagine a day goes by without him thinking about it.

Everyone who has ever started a fitness program should read this article.   Mark Leary, a Professor of neuroscience at Duke, clearly explains in scientific terms why learning to stop beating yourself up is a really good idea.

…people often go beyond an objective assessment of their responsibility to blaming, criticising and even punishing themselves. This self-inflicted cruelty increases whatever distress the original problem is already causing.”

Mark Leary, Professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University

These thought patterns are common in fitness.  There is no other consumer product that, if defective, we would blame ourselves for its failure.  If you unpacked a new DVD player and it were faulty, you would immediately return it and demand a new one.  Why do we treat our gym memberships, diet books, fitness videos, and personal trainers differently?

Most people fail to achieve their fitness goals.  Do you love the body you see in the mirror?  If not, do you blame yourself?  When you fail to meet your fitness goals, or quit your fitness program altogether, the automatic thought that arises is “it must be my fault”.  You blame your genes, metabolism, “body-type”, lack of willpower, poor discipline, or some other internal, personal, permanent defect that you believe you can never change.

This type of thinking, common in depression patients, is a form of what psychologists call learned helplessness.  When your “explanatory framework” – the stories you tell yourself about why things are the way they are – tends toward personal, internal and immutable explanations, you are exhibiting learned helplessness thinking patterns.

One way out of this abyss, according to a growing body of research, is practicing self-compassion.  While self esteem is about how you evaluate yourself, self compassion is about how you treat yourself.  The latter is much simpler to practice since it doesn’t involve an in-depth analysis of your attributes and flaws, or an assessment of personal responsibility.  Just be as kind to yourself as you would to someone you love who is similarly suffering.  Studies show it may be even more beneficial than self-esteem in attenuating negative reactions to life events.

People who practice self-compassion are better equipped to deal with failure, and they readily recognize that others suffer as well.  “Although recognising one’s connections with the shared human experience might not reduce our reactions to the original problem, it does remind us not to personalise what has happened or to conclude that our problems are somehow worse than everyone else’s”,  According to Leary.

This depersonalization, one of the key components of self-compassion, is also called “non-identification” in mindfulness meditation.   In this meditation technique, the practitioner is taught to visualize his own thoughts and feelings as transient states of mind that come and go – external, and constantly changing.

Seeing your failures and feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt in this way is a powerful antidote to self-flagellation, since none of these feelings defines the essence of who you are.  Your negative self-talk is just another state of mind floating on the river of your consciousness, and like all other states of mind they will float past you, and not ultimately define who you are.

Leary points out that the benefits of self-compassion extend beyond the emotional realm, to the behavioral.  Practicing self-compassion can have a significant impact on your motivation as well.  Other studies indicate that self-acceptance results in less self-destructive behavior.

If you want to get fit, I highly recommend that you absorb these ideas – learning self compassion may keep your motivation from flagging, and help you stay on track to reach your goals.  Simply being kind to yourself may make you fitter, happier, and it may even save your life.


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