This blog post was originally published for MothersEsquire in 2020. A year later it still resonates so I edited it slightly to update and have republished here.
I know you are ready to go. It’s a new year, and after a year like 2020, you are ready to make 2021 your year. Your resolutions are made. Your motivation is high. You’re going to achieve those goals come hell or high water.
Except, you’re a lawyer, right? You know that high water inevitably will come. The energy and momentum of January quickly fades into the gray doldrums of February. I don’t know if it’s Valentine’s day or what but that month just has a way of turning those resolutions made only weeks before into regrets. I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here; I’m honestly not. I think it’s awesome that we humans want to improve and grow each year and I do not want to get in your way. I’m only suggesting, in the humblest of humble opinions, that perhaps it might be good to have a backup plan.
I’m not talking about lowering standards or even managing expectations. I want you to dream big and to go big in 2021. But, while high standards can lead us to great things, they can also send us pretty low if we don’t get the results we want. So, the question is this: how do you get the best of both worlds? Can you set high goals without setting yourself up for failure?
In my experience, you can as long as you use self-compassion. “Wait, what?” you might be thinking. “Are you seriously telling me I just need to be nice to myself?” Yes. Yes, I am. You—yes you!—need to be nice to yourself. I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now and I’m fine with that. But hear me out. Did you know that self-compassion has been studied? There is this awesome researcher named Kristin Neff. She’s super smart and has studied self-compassion for over a decade.
You know what she’s found? She’s found that people who treat themselves with compassion are more likely to exhibit resilience in the face of challenges and, thus, more likely to achieve goals. One of the reasons this is true is that people who act with self-compassion tend to view a failure or a setback as a learning experience, rather than an indication of their personal worth. In short, self-compassion is a buffer that can help high-achieving people from taking goals (and themselves) too seriously.
It’s compelling stuff, but it leads to another question: how does one learn to respond with self-compassion? This is a fair question. After all, it is one of the easiest things in the world to get down on yourself when you don’t achieve a goal that’s important to you. Clearly, you would have achieved the goal if you were good enough, or worked hard enough, or were more committed, or wanted it more, etc., right??? Well, no, it’s not that clear. For us lawyers, life is rarely clear. We are trying to manage our lives, our families, our practices, and—on top of that—achieve new goals and grow. That’s not easy. It’s really hard.
So let’s make this simple. Here’s an easy test to help you determine if you are reacting with self-compassion. I call it the “best friend” test. All you do is think of your best friend. Imagine that your best friend comes to you with the exact same problem in which you find yourself. Now, think of how you would respond to your best friend.
Let’s say your best friend wants to exercise at least 3 times a week but has struggled because she’s been dealing with family issues and a busy time at work. How would you respond to her? I bet you’ll find it is easy to be compassionate with her. Now, all you have to do is recognize that it’s you who deserves that love too. If you really struggle with this, just call your best friend and listen to what they have to say. When you have this kind of support, you’ll be better equipped to handle whatever life wants to throw at you, even the gray doldrums of February.
In 2021, I hope you have some amazing goals for yourself and I hope you crush them. As you go about conquering the world, though, be nice to yourself. If you need any more help doing that, here are some resources that you might find useful:
- For a quick overview of Neff’s research, check out this interview of her on the Ten Percent Happier podcast.
- For research, tools, and free compassion guided meditations, check out Neff’s website.
- For more in-depth discussion of Neff’s research on self-compassion, check out her book.
Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.
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