Anyone can get caught in a dark place in terms of how they view themselves and their progress in a skill. Making demands of ourselves to be at our best can be a powerful motivating force, but it can also be supremely destructive.
In my own growth as both a swordsman and a dancer I have moved into places where I felt I was far from meeting my own expectations. From those places I have often been very hard on myself. I’m not learning quickly enough, I’m backsliding, I’m a poor practitioner, I’m stuck—all things that I have said to myself at some time.
When you’re looking at your practice in a hyper-focused way, it’s easy to pick out the flaws. Then it’s easy to lose the forest for the trees and see only the flaws. In myself and so many of my students I see them get disconnected from their actual growth and where they are relative to where they were six months or a year ago. When you find yourself in this place it’s important to get perspective and explicitly review your attitude.
Where are you truly in your growth as a practitioner? Here are two useful ways to learn about this:
- Write an honest accounting. Sit down with a journal and review where you were six months or a year ago, or two years ago. What did you know? How good were you at practicing it? What exercises were you capable of? Where were you struggling? Then think about yourself in the present. Where are you? What have you learned relative to that place in the past?
- Get an unbiased opinion. It’s hard to see your own progress because your perspective is moving forward along with your growth. There will never be a time when you feel that you have finished the journey of learning. You will always have things to work on. In many ways we are the worst person to review our own progress. So have someone else answer the questions from step one and take stock from their view.
Changing your Attitude
Generally when we take stock we realize that we are making progress but we’re having a hard time reflecting that in our attitude. So it’s time to make an attitude shift:
- Make a long-term commitment. “I am going to work at this for at least three months before I reassess.” Ongoing critical assessment isn’t useful. All skills require time to acquire and a daily granular assessment is just a waste of time. Explicitly defer the critical attitude for a while. When you feel those critical thoughts come up, just remind yourself that you’re going to assess on that future date so the critical eye can chill out for a bit.
- Choose to change your attitude. Attitudes are just deeply held strategies. We are often hard on ourselves because we believe it will motivate us to do better. Often these beliefs are mistaken or have attachments that are unhelpful. Driving yourself to be your best self and being mindful of how you can improve: that is good. Beating yourself up for where you feel you’re falling short: that’s at best not useful, at worst demotivating. Acknowledge your current strategy and embrace a new one: “For this period I am going to take stock at the end of each session, considering how I have improved. I’m going to choose one thing to work on. I’m going to let go of critical dissection.” Try out a healthier strategy for a while and see how it goes. You can always review the new strategy at your check-in point (see step 1).
- Partner up with a buddy. Let someone know you’re changing your approach, how you’re changing your approach, and make a weekly or monthly check-in time with them. Nothing is required of them other than to listen and help you hold yourself accountable.
- Have a rhythm and a system. I use my daily todo list app everyday to check-in on my changes of approach. I simply describe my process in a todo item and then I read it, do my practice, and check it off each day. Other strategies can involve daily journalling, saying an affirmation (try writing it on your bathroom mirror so you see it early and often), or making this part of your buddy check-in.
Attitude shifts take time and having a system will help you keep on track with this gradual shift. If you’re in a stuck place right now, this plan can be followed in as little as fifteen minutes. So what are you waiting for?
I’m right there with you, and would love to hear from you anytime!