Using Self-Compassion to Unlock Achievement

Striving for Achievement

Everybody wants to do more, and to do better.  They pick up books like Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich or Tony Robbins’ Awaken The Giant Within.  They go to workshops, watch Youtube videos, and make impossibly long to do lists.  The books pile up, and the workshop worksheets fill folders.  The videos people bookmark for later occupy several open browser windows.

Befuddled by all of this information, and no closer to success, people turn to their old friend self-criticism, assuming that laziness and poor focus are to blame.  They do not quite arrive at self-compassion as a first step.  Instead, they tell me that they have heard that meditation and other Mindfulness practices increase focus, and have helped some famous people like Oprah become successful. 

We talk about the very real benefits of Mindfulness practices: sharper focus, less distress, more emotional well-being, and the increased ability to strategize about how to manage life’s stresses.  It becomes clear that like the other supplies they have gathered for their quest, their aim is to recruit Mindfulness as a new strategy to support a striving mind.  The problem is that the striving mind is one of the greatest contributors to their lack of success.  One thing they do not need more of is striving.

Using Self-Compassion For Achievement

When I bring up self-compassion, there is often an immediate fear that we are no longer focused on their success, and now have begun a disappointing detour to pity.  So, I explain how self-compassion has the mindfulness components, but also the capacity to be understanding in a way that frees up emotional and cognitive resources. 

We look at their previous strategies, and notice a trend.  They are overworked, and continue to do more work to get ahead, but instead find that they fall behind with their normal work, and its quality suffers too.  They acknowledge this is a problem, and I explain that we cannot actually get more time, but we can improve the resources we have available during that time, and the decisions we make. 

We can also work to avoid unnecessary work that is related to fear or self-doubt.  Many self-help resources target your anxiety to compel you to buy their products.  The fear response is strong, so people sometimes purchase resources they do not need, and are confused and exhausted by the fear energy that is now running the show. 

Self-Compassion works by helping you get an objective sense of what is happening in real time.  It also connects you to core values that are steeped in what you need to have a meaningful life filled with well-being.  It is proactive, and not doctored by the agenda of others, so you are sure that your time is not being wasted.  All of a sudden, your time feels like it is being maximized, and you start to experience real success.


John was a thirty-three year old married lawyer with two kids, and a mortgage.  He wanted to get involved with real estate, but was struggling to find the time or the energy.  He had been to countless workshops, had a stack of unread books, and a long list of unwatched Youtube videos.  He learned the importance of hard work in law school, and “coached himself” then by using strongly worded maxims, such as: “success is for the strong,” “I will sleep when I’m dead,” and “the only enemy of success is laziness.”  

He said this helped him with exams.  When this method was no longer working, he would go on a “mini-break” to his then girlfriend’s house, who would feed him, give him a place to nap, and soothe him with understanding words.  They fell out of touch, when she took a job after law school with the Peace Corps. 

Two years later, he married Laura, a high-powered stockbroker with whom he bonded over rock climbing and scuba diving expeditions.  She was a master striver like John, and had found much success until her position was made redundant by a merger with a larger firm.  With two children in private schools, and no clear way out of their mortgage, Laura agreed to stay home, which left her feeling anxious and depressed over time.  These feelings were made real to John via daily texts and emails about problems with the kids and the house.

John’s current ambitions had been powered by all of these challenges, which reminded him of law school.  That is why he remembered his maxims and Laura’s support.  The maxims were striving based.  Laura was compassion based, at least in her treatment of John.  John needed both to be successful during times in which he was maximally stressed and minimally resourced.  Once, we worked on some basic self-compassion practices, John came to this realization himself after a few weeks of other noticeable gains, such as better sleep, more energy, and more optimism.   

Sounds too easy, huh?  It was not so easy.  I knew John would be resistant, so I gave him a notecard (his idea) with the basic self-compassion process (Notice where the tension comes up in your body.  Name it.  Make space for it. Soften around the tension.  Let it pass.  Bring kindness to your experience).  I told him to save it for his third response.  He was caught a little off guard, so I explained that our tendency is to resist change, and go to the response we have used the most over time.  When this does not work, we use part of the new strategy, low risk, high reward.  Of course, this does not work, so finally we give up and try on the new strategy, which, if we let it, will work.  Given John’s predicament at home, he had to trust it on the third try, and he was pleasantly surprised by the results.

After finding success in following the basic process, I had John start to notice the pattern of stress (bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions), and what worked best to soothe them (bring kindness) to them.  From that, were able to get a sense of his greatest challenges, and core values.  Once we had the core values together, we were able to help John develop a filter for what would be helpful for him to learn to achieve his goals, and how to pursue them in a way that allowed for consistent effort and results.

John appreciated the fact that although we had worked together to help him develop this skill set the strategies were powered by his unique talents and needs.  Eventually, he was able to do this work by himself, and no longer needed to see me.  He knew this to be true after he flipped his first house, and still felt able to perform at his main job as a lawyer, and as a father and husband at home.

Getting Your Own Results

We all desire more success, more well-being, and less stress, but often we try to attain all three by taking on impossible training and expectations.  We are also not prepared for the ample self-compassion required to do this work in a consistent way, and so we inevitably fail.  We turn to self-criticism as a remedy for this failure, but find that this strategy only makes our situation feel worse.

Give yourself permission to practice self-compassion, and get a sense of what you need and what you want to be happy.  Acknowledge the fact that we are socially poorly prepared for this work, and come by our ill-fitting strategies naturally.  Notice when potential resources work your fears rather than focus your dreams to persuade you to purchase them.  Be committed to your well-being as much as you are devoted to getting monetary or social rewards.  You will feel better, and it will make them easier to come by.

365 Days of Kindness.  Self-Compassion.  Day 97.  In the Books.