Exercising Self Compassion

When I tell people I am an avid runner, they often share with me just how much they hate running. They say their experience with running was awful, agonizing and completely not worth it. Even as someone who has been running since high school, I can definitely see the truth in those feelings. Since I started running long distance I’ve had my share of miserable runs, especially when I first started and could barely run a mile without feeling like dying. Next weekend, I’m planning to run my fourth marathon, but I still sometimes have discouraging experiences with my running. So, I thought I’d write about a way to overcome these types of negative experiences: self-compassion.

Many people have goals related to exercise. Maybe it’s to be able to run a mile, build some muscle, or lose some weight. Unfortunately though, in exercise, there is often a feeling of self-evaluation and social comparison that blocks people from reaching these goals. When you are out of breath after a mile or struggling to lift a set of weights, it’s easy to attribute the struggle to personal weakness, or the belief you don’t have the body for it or are simply just bad at exercise. This can be even worse when you look around and see people with perfect physiques running faster and lifting heavier weights than you like it’s nothing. The combination of difficulty achieving goals, being critical of yourself, and comparing yourself to others can contribute to a sense of failure and leads many people to quit exercising.

One way to prevent this feeling of failure is to learn to treat yourself with compassion. The important thing about self-compassion is that it is not contingent on performance or competence, rather it is an unconditionally supporting yourself. Self-compassion involves self-kindness, a perception of common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is being open and understanding about your difficulties rather than being critical and judgmental. Perception of a common humanity means that you realize your struggles are not necessarily unique to you. For example, you may have been completely exhausted after five minutes of running, but you realize that you’re not the only person who has ever struggled to run a mile. Mindfulness is having an awareness and understanding of your feelings so that you don’t ignore your feelings, but aren’t preoccupied with them either. So you may feel terrible after an unsuccessful workout, but you don’t keep feeling that way long after the workout ends.

Magnus, Kowalski, & McHugh (2010) tested the effects of self-compassion in women who exercise to see if women who were more self-compassionate would have fewer problems with self-evaluation and social comparison. They used women primarily because are typically seen as more susceptible to body image problems although it is important to note that men certainly have these problems too. They found that women who were more self-compassionate were less driven by goals related to demonstrating competence, avoiding failure and feeling incompetent. Similarly, they had less anxiety about their physique and were less likely to engage in obligatory exercise, which refers to exercising past the point where exercise is beneficial (e.g. exercising while injured).

So, self-compassion allows us to be realistic about exercising and to be accepting of where we are in our exercise goals. Bad days happen, and there are going to be people who are faster and stronger. If you happen run slower, that does not mean you are incompetent or a failure. It really does not do you any good to push yourself to the point of injury just to have a nice body or be able to run as fast as the next person. Go at your own pace and realize that the simple fact that you’re trying puts you a little closer to your goal. You are probably going to have discouraging experiences while exercising, but treat yourself with kindness, realize that you are not the only one who has ever been discouraged, and don’t dwell too long on the negative feelings. You might just find that these difficulties are a little easier to overcome.

Magnus, C.M.R., Kowalski, K.C., & McHugh, T.F. (2010). The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise related outcomes. Self and Identity, 9, 363-382.

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