It’s been over 6 months since I last wrote a post for this blog. It seems that I have fallen foul of the very phenomena that I investigate — namely, the gap between intentions and action. I could offer a range of excuses for succumbing to the road to hell (and even go on to smugly classify them according to frameworks that I have published on why people struggle to achieve their goals), but in truth this state of affairs actually simply leaves me slightly disheartened and disappointed with myself.
So how can I move forward? When people slip and fall behind, how do they get themselves back on track? Work on self-compassion (Neff, 2003) suggests that berating oneself for the failure can be counterproductive. Instead, it may be better to recognise that struggling to achieve goals is an inevitable part of the human experience and is often understandable given the circumstances. Contextualising a discrepancy between intentions and action in this way can help to prevent negative inferences (e.g., that I am not willing or able to write a blog) and promote a more helpful appraisal of the situation (e.g., that this is a slip, from which it is possible to recover and get back on track).
For example, Breines and Chen (2012) asked participants to identify and describe a personal weakness. Some of the participants were then instructed to try to understand the weakness and to take a caring and concerned approach, rather than a critical one. Finally, participants rated how motivated they were to address the weakness. The findings suggested that, somewhat paradoxically, taking an accepting approach to personal failure made people more motivated to improve themselves (relative to other participants who were invited to reflect on other, more positive aspects of the self after identifying a weakness). Similarly, my colleague, Fuschia Sirois, finds that people who are self-compassionate engage in more health promoting behaviours (2015) and are less likely to procrastinate and feel stressed as a result (2014).
So does the above explain why I am now using a long train journey to write this blog, rather than reading about the 100th Edition of the Giro d’Italia in the Peloton magazine that I have just purchased? In truth no – sadly, I don’t think that I am not tapping away at the keys of my computer because I have managed to cut myself some slack and interpret my failure to contribute a blog post as entirely understandable given the circumstances. Rather, I think I’m writing this because I don’t want to see myself as the kind of person who does not follow through on promises. Promises might be a little strong in this context, but when Psychology Today invited me to contribute a blog, they asked that contributors offer something at least once a month, and I (in retrospect, perhaps foolishly) agreed.
So why aren’t I compassionate toward myself? I have been very busy over the last 6 months and writing a blog is (sadly) rather low on my list of priorities. As such, it would be relatively easy for me to view my lapse as understandable given the circumstances. I think one explanation is that I am something of a perfectionist and, although self-compassion has been touted as a potential strategy for dealing with perfectionism, there is evidence that some people find it hard to be compassionate toward themselves; viewing so doing as indulgent -— a sign of weakness and a way of avoiding taking responsibility (Robinson et al., 2016). In part, this belief may accrue from a fear that developing self-compassion will lead to a drop in standards, with the consequence that the person becomes lazy and ineffective. However, the evidence above suggests that this is far from true - to reiterate, research studies suggest that people who are self-compassionate are more motivated and less likely to procrastinate than those who are self-critical.
So where does this leave me? In a sense, I feel like I have come full circle — I now find it understandable that I struggle to be compassionate toward myself and view my failure to regularly write a blog as understandable. I’m not sure what this means going forward, but at least sorting this out in my head has resulted in one more blog post!
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133-1143.
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101.
Robinson, K. J., Mayer, S., Allen, A. B., Terry, M., Chilton, A., & Leary, M. R. (2016) Resisting self-compassion: Why are some people opposed to being kind to themselves? Self and Identity, 15, 505-524.
Sirois, F. M. (2014) Procrastination and stress: Exploring the role of self- compassion. Self and Identity, 13, 128-145.
Sirois, F. M., Kitner, R., & Hirsch, J. K. (2015). Self-compassion, affect, and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychology, 34, 661–669.