What are you relentless about?
This is a curious question, isn’t it? On one hand, we could see this as a positive inquiry. For example, “I’m relentless about my family’s diet” or “I’m relentless about careful budgeting.” Both are positive points of focus, which would likely have good outcomes associated with them.
But if we flip this around and pose the same question to other ways of being in our lives, things can get a little messy. “I’m relentless about my body image” or “I’m relentless with self-doubt.” These feel a little less affirming, don’t they? In fact, they feel kind judgy and maybe also a tad mean. But that tough talk works, right? If we just get a little harsher on ourselves, we really step up don’t we?
Nope. That’s not been my experience.
One of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal as human beings is compassion. We usually think of compassion as something we extend to others, which is wonderful and helpful. Compassion for someone else’s journey in this world is a key element of healthy human relationships and supportive communities. But how often do we gift that to ourselves?
I want to distinguish here between compassion and pity. Pity is something that usually isn’t helpful and often can make the recipient feel his or her burden is even heavier. Compassion activates something different in people. It lightens the load by acknowledging that I, as the giver of compassion, can never really know what is to be that other person. It doesn’t minimize. It acknowledges, affirms, supports and hopefully, strengthens.
Back to self-compassion. It’s much trickier to extend this to ourselves. It is, as the old saying goes, an inside job. So what does it look like in action?
I’ll go back to the example above about being “relentless about body image.” The women in my age group grew up in a time where we were regularly exposed to images of women that, in hindsight, were likely overwhelmingly malnourished. Nonetheless, most women I know still hold those images as “ideals” of how women should look, whether it’s said out loud or not. A perfect size 4 is the only way to be.
So how does that hold up for us today as we all grow a little older and a little thicker? Not very well. It’s a goal that was never and will never be reached. But it’s still held in awareness. It’s what we usually see when we get dressed in the morning. Too much pudge here and here and here…still.
To me, understanding that this narrative was born in a different time helps me better understand it and work with it on a compassionate level.
Of course I still see these "faults", these "not good enoughs"—that storyline is built into my brain from long, long ago. I see it all at a distance now though—something I know the roots of—which doesn’t make it either real or true. It’s a picture that was marketed to me. It’s a story. And I can re-evaluate the value of that story. If it’s valuable (which this isn’t), I’m allowed to keep it. If it’s worthless and counter-productive, I can disallow it. I can see it for what it is.
The same process works with relentless self-doubt. I’ve never met anyone that was making good use of their own self-doubt. Humility is a different quality and it’s important. But self-doubt is worthless and typically based on a story someone else handed you at a key moment in your development that you inadvertently internalized. Like the body image example above, it was “marketed” to you and you bought it.
Having compassion for the doubt narrative could look like this:
You: “I feel good about the work I did on this project. I stretched where I could and I found my flow throughout the process and hit the deadline.”
Self-doubt: “Really? You kinda stumbled through that last piece in the report didn’t you? Ohhhh wait til they catch the last changes you KNOW you missed. And the client will probably notice it first! And then…and then…”
I’m exaggerating here but you get the point.
You in self-compassion mode, looks like this:
“Yes, I may have missed one or two of those last minute changes but I know I was diligent about checking. If there’s an issue, I’ll know. And I can handle the feedback I will get, even if it feels critical or personal. It may feel personal, but that's not about me. That's about the messenger. Whatever I learn in this I can apply to the next project.”
Can you feel the differences here? Self-compassion mode isn’t defensive; but rather open and willing. And kind. Kindness counts here as much as anywhere. That undermining voice of self-doubt is a pretty far throw from kind and by its nature, makes one feel small and incapable.
I want to encourage you to take a closer look at what you’re relentless about and question its veracity. What are its roots and does it hold value? Will it ever hold value? If not, then take a step back. Be curious but not judgmental. And then just let it go.
Let me know how these ideas land with you. And if you have strategies that have worked for you, please share them with me, so I can share them as well.
personal development and Equus coach, former Penn State journalism instructor and professional writer.