By Pete Kirchmer
About The Author
Pete Kirchmer is the Assistant Director for the UCSD Center For Mindfulness mPEAK (Mindful, Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge) Program. Pete specializes in coaching his clients in applying the practice of mindfulness to making healthy lifestyle changes as well as improving performance in life, work and sport. For more information about Pete Kirchmer please visit his Mindfulness Based Health Coaching website.
When asked what gets in the way of consistently performing at their best, most people can easily identify obstacles such as time, energy, scheduling conflicts, and distractions. These can indeed be areas that need focus but what I’ve found in my coaching practice is that most of our real obstacles are internal. Another way to say this is, our greatest obstacle to peak performance is often ourselves.
These internal obstacles are experienced as negative thoughts and stories in our mind accompanied by tension in our body. These thoughts can take on a personality and an inner voice that seems to have but one job, to sabotage you from doing whatever you set out to do. This inner voice would like to talk you out of your big vision by convincing you that your plans are unworkable and your aspirations are unattainable. Listening to and believing this voice leads to ambivalence, low self-esteem, catastrophizing, shame, anxiety, worry, exhaustion and ultimately failure. Often they are the internalized voices of influential people and caregivers from our past, and when they treat us badly there may be good reason to consider finding ways of letting them go.
In the mPEAK program we refer to these thought patterns as the “Inner Critical Coach”.
The Inner Critical Coach looks for perfection everywhere. It loves to compare and hold unachievable high standards. It strives to attain, and will drive you to success at all cost-including health, happiness and sanity. You know you’re listening to the voice of the Inner Critical Coach when you start feeling like you SHOULD be better than you are. You SHOULD be “there” by now. And SHOULD be like someone else who clearly has it more together than you. There is an overall sense of not measuring up and just not being good enough. When the Inner Critical Coach is in charge, you may end up making long lists of things to do and staying up late, feeling pushed to do more and more but never feeling quite satisfied.
Everyone has these voices to varying degrees. For some, it only comes out when under the extreme pressures of deadlines or competition and for others; it’s a pattern that regularly dominates their thinking. Perhaps you already know a little bit about your own Inner Critical Coach? Just think of an area of your performance that you feel like needs to be changed. Then imagine how you talk to yourself when you don’t perform the way you’d expected in that area. Chances are, the things your Inner Critic says would be grounds for a breakup or a fistfight if someone else said them to you! “Yep, you blew it again. That was bound to happen.” “Its your fault, if you would have worked harder you wouldn’t have let the team down.” “You’re never going to get it right”.
“Your Inner Critic is actually trying to protect you from others’ disapproval, hurt or abandonment.”
It’s easy to start thinking of your Inner Critical Coach as the enemy but let’s explore it a bit more before making that judgment. According to The Founders of Voice Dialoguing Therapy, Hal & Sidra Stone, its intentions aren’t all bad. Your Inner Critic is actually trying to protect you from others’ disapproval, hurt or abandonment. The philosophy of the Inner Critic is “better me than them”—in other words, it is better for your own inner critic to whip you into conformity before you have to experience the hurt of someone else criticizing you. It has a remarkable underlying anxiety about life and what other people think, because again, its job is to protect you from others’ judgments. Can you see how this might be true for your Inner Critical Coach?
Mindfulness of the Inner Critical Coach
The first step to managing your Inner Critical Coach is to start consciously noticing and identifying it from the other thoughts you have. Once identified as “not you” it helps to slap a label on it. Some participants of the mPEAK course stick with the standard title, “Inner Critical Coach” and others give it a more personalized title- maybe even named after a pushy past boss or grouchy childhood soccer coach! The act of noticing and labeling brings the thought from unconscious to conscious or from subjective experience to something that’s now objective and manageable. The clearer we can be in observing these thoughts, the easier it becomes to manage them.
“The clearer we can be in observing these thoughts, the easier it becomes to manage them.”
After labeling, it’s important to realize that your thoughts don’t have to control you and that you have a choice about how to work with these critical thoughts. Perhaps you dispute the thought by finding evidence against it- a time where you did succeed and you were indeed good enough. Or maybe you get curious, “what am I protecting myself from?” Or, “What’s the silver lining in this?” Sometimes just by seeing The Inner Critical Coach for what it is allows us to simply let the whole thing go and move on. We can even potentially thank the Inner Critical Coach for how hard it has worked up until now to try and keep us safe or protect us from harm in some way.
Meet Your Compassionate Inner Coach
But even as resilient as you may be, we’ve all had occasions where the challenges we’re up against just don’t seem to respond to our usual strategies for moving forward. Maybe you dropped the game-winning pass, lost a key client, sustained an injury, got fired or gained twenty pounds. Try as you might, the emotions that come with failure such as inadequacy and unworthiness can seem to stick like pine tar. Even though you’re aware that your Inner Critical Coach has taken over the ship, you may still feel helpless to turn things around.
During these inevitable difficulties we have participants in the mPEAK course experiment with turning towards another aspect of themselves, their Compassionate Inner Coach. This is the inner voice that is kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain and failure. Your Compassionate Inner Coach has your back and wants whatever is best for you. It wants nothing more than for you to be happy, perform at your best and be free from stress.
“How would you feel if you lost a competition and your coach said to you: “What a looser. You’ll never amount to anything. I’m ashamed of you!” Inspired, confident, ready to take on the next challenge? Of course not – and yet isn’t that exactly the type of language we use with ourselves when we fail? What could your coach say that was more productive? “Hey, it’s okay. Everyone fails sometime and it’s an important part of the learning curve. But I’m here for you. I believe in you. What can I do to help?” This type of kind, supportive talk is going to be a much more effective motivator. Luckily we can start to use this approach with ourselves by learning the skill of self-compassion.”
Compassion is not a term typically spoken in boardrooms or locker rooms and it’s relevance to performance enhancement may not be immediately obvious. Sure we all agree it’s valuable for caregivers like nurses, mothers, aide workers and those religiously inclined to service but how might compassion help an athlete or an executive?
Though research into the physiology of self-compassion versus self-criticism is still in its early stages, Kristin Neff, the lead researcher in self-compassion hypothesizes a simple model. Harsh self-criticism activates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) and elevates stress hormones such as cortisol in our bloodstream. When our Inner Critical Coach has a hold on us, we cannot learn from or engage with the deeper lesson or truth that may be there to serve us. Connecting with your own Self-Compassionate Inner Coach on the other hand may trigger the mammalian care-giving system, releasing hormones of affiliation and love, such as oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of connection and well-being.
Offering self-compassion by treating yourself the way a good friend would, presents a healthy way of relating to the self that is not dependent upon performance, success or positive self-evaluations. Treating oneself with compassion involves accepting all aspects of one’s experiences, regardless of how painful or difficult they may be.
“Treating oneself with compassion involves accepting all aspects of one’s experiences…”
Research by Mosewich et al. found that self-compassion was linked with lower body shame, body surveillance, fear of failure, fear of negative evaluation, objectified body self-consciousness, and social physique anxiety. Treating oneself with compassion allows for clarity of one’s limitations and recognition of unhealthy behaviors, which enables action for growth and encourages change to improve well-being (Berry, Kowalski, Ferguson, & McHugh); hence, self-compassion may be a viable resource for achieving human potential. In other studies done by Ferguson and Kowalski et al., Self-compassion was described as advantageous in difficult sport specific situations by increasing positivity, perseverance, and responsibility, as well as decreasing rumination.
Despite the promising research, some of the participants in mPEAK meet this particular practice with resistance and a healthy skepticism. It’s a commonly held belief in high achievers that “if I didn’t beat myself up, I’d never get anywhere. My Inner Critical Coach is who motivates me to win!” Self-compassion can be perceived as too gentle for corporate culture or too passive for the grittiness of competitive sports. There is a fear that listening to the voice of the Inner Compassionate Coach will make them complacent, or overly tolerant of low standards. “If I’m too kind to myself, I’ll loose my edge.” “If I believe I’m good enough, I’ll never get better.”
But The Self-Compassionate Coach is hardly one to let you off the hook. Neff explains that self-compassion is not a way of avoiding goals or becoming self-indulgent. Instead, self- compassion is a great motivator because it involves the desire to alleviate suffering, to heal, to thrive, and to be happy. A parent who cares about her child will insist on the child’s eating vegetables and doing her homework, no matter how unpleasant these experiences are for the child. Similarly, taking it easy on yourself may be appropriate in some situations, “but in times of over-indulgence and laziness, self-compassion involves toughening up and taking responsibility.”
In experiments by Juliana G. Breines and Serena Chen, it was found that self-compassion actually motivated people to improve personal weaknesses, moral transgressions, and test performance. So rather than giving up, those who are self-compassionate actually try as hard to succeed as those who are less self-compassionate, but are more likely to persist after failing or falling or losing.
Loss, failure and injury are painful enough on their own without us adding an extra layer of self-judgment and insult. If your Inner Critical Coach is holding you back from peak performance and you’re ready to make a shift toward greater Self Compassion, you may consider signing up for our upcoming mPEAK 3-Day Intensive.
Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge
3-Day Intensive mPEAK course Program activities include: meditation; talks on the relationship between neuroscientific findings, peak performance and mindfulness; experiential exercises; group discussion; and home practices.
CE credits are available. June 26-28, 2015 The Catamaran Hotel, San Diego, CA