Making Change

A psychologist provides guidelines to help individuals define their best pathways to change

Succeed at Work: How to Get Out of Your Own Way

Self-compassion can help you to face your fears and improve your performance.

Failing to live up to your potential can sometimes be difficult to understand and correct.  Perhaps you are consistently late to meetings. Your procrastination might lead to sub-optimal work. Or, you might be easily distracted. Whatever your difficulties, serious reflection may reveal that the underlying reason for falling short of your aspirations is related to an inner conflict.

The inner conflict might be something as simple as preferring to sleep late or schmooze with friends than wrestle with the day’s stresses. In other words, it could be just a priority thing. The solution to this, of course, is to reassess your priorities and choose to live according to them.

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But your difficulty might also run deeper. You might not want to put yourself on the line for your boss – or any boss – because of your expectation that he’ll criticize you. You might fear ever-increasing expectations of others if you succeed while also fearing rejection if you fail.  Or, you just might doubt your own abilities. Unfortunately, these struggles often lurk below the surface of awareness. Even when people know that they exist, they can be blind to specific examples as they occur. Instead, when struggles begin to surface, they can be so distressing that people automatically act to get away from them – they procrastinate or outright avoid those situations. This reaction makes them almost impossible to address.

So, whatever the source of your inner struggle, to overcome it, you must first see it – which can be incredibly enlightening. For instance, consider the person who realizes that she avoids any advancement at work because of a fear of public speaking. She can then consciously decide to work on this; perhaps joining Toastmasters or developing another plan with her supervisor to address this weakness.

Understanding the obstacles to change is especially difficult when a person’s inner conflict is strong. In these cases, advice and problem-focused solutions often fail because they don’t resolve the person’s inner conflict. For instance, instructing someone to break a large work project into manageable pieces might help him to complete it without becoming overwhelmed. However, if he harbors a strong fear of failure, he might still find other insidious ways to delay its completion.

When inner struggles are this intense, you must find a way to address the inner conflict – not just make demands for better performance. Begin by acknowledging the struggle in a compassionate way.  Befriend that scared or overwhelmed part of you. It’s essential that you talk to that part of yourself as you would someone else who you cared about.

Listen to the experience of this part of you without judgment. Then validate its experience and encourage it. For instance, if your fear of failure prevents you from putting in your full effort, take the time to fully understand the fear. You might remember struggles in school as a child that left you constantly facing disapproving parents and teachers; leaving you – to this day – overwhelmed at the thought of repeating the experience. Once you understand and can sympathize with this experience, you can reassure yourself that this fear makes sense. Then you can talk yourself through it. You might note that you know that you are skilled at your work, no matter what feedback you get. It might also help to be aware that your present boss or co-workers have been supportive and encouraging. Finally, with this encouragement– while simultaneously being compassionate for your struggles – you will be more likely to risk putting in your full self into your efforts.

The reason this approach of having self-compassion is often more effective than just demanding better performance is that strong emotions often overcome logic. While people tend to think that willpower is the answer to doing better, the brain doesn’t work that way. Strong emotions impair and sometimes even shut down the thinking center in the brain. So, if you are emotionally overwhelmed or truly afraid, you cannot think clearly. And you cannot just will yourself to think differently.

Instead, when you are stuck in counterproductive behaviors at work, approach yourself with compassion and encouragement. With this approach, you can free yourself to face the challenges of self-improvement, making way for future success.

 

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

Personal change through compassionate self-awareness

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, New Jersey.

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