A few months ago, I noticed that I began to suffer from Zoom-Syndrome (I made up the name, but you know what I mean). Like many of you, I was spending most of my days staring at a glowing screen while missing the warmth of human proximity. I was feeling lethargic and uninspired while constantly craving the comfort of some sugary snack. So, I made a conscious decision to adhere to my own counsel and apply some new actions of self-compassion.
Although I have never really enjoyed exercise for its own benefits, I decided to begin running again. However, I knew that this time (Can you hear a little guilt and remorse?), I would need to do things differently. I have always enjoyed sports with their competitive natures, but I had noticed that this same attitude was self-defeating when applied to exercise. Trying to do better and improve (to win somehow) had become a deterrent to enjoying the process and actually maintaining some level of consistency.
With my own personality challenges in mind, I made some rules for myself (compassionate ones). I decided that I would pick an unhurried time to exercise. I would take a 5-minute casual walk to my local park, run around the almost ½ mile track three or four times, and then walk leisurely back home. Perhaps, I would listen to my favorite podcast or sermon…. or maybe not.
I also determined that I would not time myself or even seek to run longer distances (Things that would initiate judgement). In contrast, this was meant to be a self-compassionate and mindful exercise purposefully designed for my own well-being without goals or measurements. I was skeptical of my own plan, but in late July, I decided to give it a try.
Because of my own willingness to carefully notice, the usual culprits began to show up. I was aware of my own critique of my physical struggles and the tendency to judge the lack of exercise in the past. I waffled between giving up or powering through, but I made a conscious decision to stick to my plan, notice the judgmental thoughts, and lean towards self-compassion. I decided to enjoy it.
At some point, maybe around day number ten, I realized that I was also noticing my surroundings. The park was beautiful, the kids playing baseball made me feel nostalgic, people with dogs were almost engaging, and my mind was becoming freer to think creatively with less pessimism. I felt better.
However, after one mid-morning run, I noticed a strange phenomenon that I believe is prevalent throughout many areas of our lives. This particular 4-lap run had been particularly enjoyable. It was significantly easier, less painful, faster, and overall super-encouraging. I even resisted the temptation to run twice as long. I judged it as a “good run”.
However, as soon as I allowed myself this judgment, I noticed another voice. The especially mean part of my brain spoke up with biting clarity and began a barrage of sharp criticisms: “Sure…that was a good run, but what would it have been like if you had been running throughout the whole lockdown…. or the last twenty years for that matter? You’d be in great shape if you hadn’t been so lazy all those years!” You have probably heard a similar voice.
I believe that this phenomenon is noticeable throughout our work, parenting, ministry, relationships, education, and even leisure (Really, every area of life). As soon as we judge our performance as good and successful, we provide catalyst to the critical, problem-solving, and dictating parts of our brains. Performance is a two-sided coin and we are all vulnerable to the “not good-enough” messages ingrained within our own thoughts.
So, how did I respond? Well…a year or so ago, I began to truly embrace Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in my own life (not just in my practice of counseling). I am convinced that a compassionate willingness to experience difficult emotions is fundamentally necessary to living a value-laden life. So…I was willing (at least this time) to notice the judgmental thoughts, be curious about them, and let them kind of just hang around. I also made fun of my mean-brain a little bit and enjoyed an actual laugh-out-loud. “Wow! Look at you”, I said, “That’s a pretty harsh judgment. You did that pretty fast and really mean. Thanks so much. That was truly helpful (sarcasm included)”. Then, I enjoyed my walk home willing to face the ensuing challenges of the rest of my day.