Just why did the world go on a bread baking craze when the pandemic started? Why couldn't you find a set of gym weights at any store to save your life? And why did we take on 100 different home projects? Because mastery feels good!
So, what is mastery? Do you need to become a stay at home gym rat or a banana bread aficionado to achieve it? Breaking down mastery will help you figure out how you can reach it to feel happier, healthier and more in control when everything is out of control.
From baking bread to gardening to exercise to crocheting, many of us looked for ways to cope at the beginning of the pandemic. What is it about challenging but doable activities that make us feel more in control? Mastering activities leads to feeling competent, confident and capable. These traits make us feel more in control.
When we’re kids, there are ample opportunities to master things, because everything is new. Additionally, we don't feel shame about being judged for failing. We fall and we are encouraged to get back up! Unfortunately, as we get older, novel opportunities become more and more rare. Societal judgement makes us less likely to put ourselves out there and try something we might not be naturally good at. But, mastery is really good for us.
Mastering an activity takes intense focus. In the field of positive psychology, mastery is referred to as “flow state;” you see this in athletes and other kinds of creatives who throw themselves into their art and report losing track of time. Self-confidence builds as we reflect on the progress we are making over time. When we can connect our results to the work we put in, we recognized that we are determining the outcome. This runs counter to most things in our lives, where we have little control. Mastery makes us feel more in control.
When it comes to mastery, you need to find a sweet spot. The activity you choose should be challenging but doable. You want to get a sense of accomplishment, rather than feeling like a total failure because the activity was too difficult to achieve on the first try. If you don't run, setting the goal to run a 5k straight out of the gate is not likely to build mastery. Choosing to run a quarter mile, on the other hand, is going to be very hard but likely possible. Start small, but not too small that it wasn't challenging enough.
When it comes to mastery, there has to be room for growth. Mastery loses its effect when it becomes too easy. While an easier activity may be relaxing and gratifying in its own ways, if it loses its difficulty it won't build mastery. This runs counterintuitive to everything our culture teaches where the ultimate goal is comfort. Many experts can do their job on autopilot with their eyes closed, but this is not mastery. Mastery requires a continuous challenge to reap the benefits. This means you have to do it consistently while building on the difficulty level so that you continue getting a sense of accomplishment.
Here’s an example: when I started spending time in nature, the idea of staying anywhere outdoors overnight was really intimidating. So, I just started with day hiking. I learned how to pack everything I needed in my backpack, carrying it out for the day and returning home the same day. After a while, that became really easy, so I started car camping. This was more challenging because I had to consider the items I would need overnight. When car camping became less challenging and more comfortable, I decided to try my hand at back country camping, where you carry everything you need for the trip and hike to a more primitive campsite, away from your vehicle. The first time I tried back country camping, I hiked out seven miles. Now this was a challenge for me! I built mastery each time, finding new ways to add difficulty so I didn’t lose my sense of accomplishment. However, I couldn’t have successfully completed a back country hike right out of the gate; I didn’t have enough experience. I had to start small with day hiking to get to this point of mastery.
But, what are the benefits of mastery anyway? Why do it when it’s not easy? Mastery pulls from two highly effective treatments for depression: behavioral activation and cognitive therapy. When I work with folks who are depressed, we make specific plans for them to do activities that make them feel competent. For really depressed clients, this might mean making the bed or showering. Mastery is not about the difficulty of the task in general, but how difficult it is for you right now, depending on your circumstances and context. This is really important; do not beat yourself up if you have to start very small. When we complete a difficult task, the story we have about ourselves starts to change. “I can't do hard things” shift to “I can do hard things” as the evidence builds and starts to support this new narrative. Research shows that practicing mastery leads to a higher quality of life, greater levels of happiness, higher self-esteem and a more positive self-image. Plus, it's been shown to decrease depression.
If you are a perfectionist, here are two potential problems to look out for. First, you will likely choose something that is too hard out of the gate. Perfectionist usually set unrealistic standards for themselves. And, this leads them to procrastinate, because they are planning for something that's too difficult and overwhelming to do. In this case, not only does a perfectionist not build mastery, but they also feel shame about the procrastination. If you are a perfectionist, give yourself permission to start small! Because perfectionistic brains believe in perfection over progress, perfectionists also fall into the trap of judging themselves negatively for not doing enough when they complete the activity. If you are a perfectionist, you may have thoughts like, “I should’ve done something harder, something more challenging.” This happened to me recently. I went on a hike and, while it was really challenging, it was a shorter distance than I’ve hiked in the past. I noticed my inner critic started to say, “You could’ve hiked further, you could have hiked longer. This wasn't long enough to feel good about.” I had to catch my inner critic quickly and shift the story I was telling myself. I challenged my inner critic by saying, “There are many ways to measure difficulty and distance is just one of them. The elevation changes and terrain made this hike challenging and I’m proud of myself for finishing it!”
Focusing on mastery helped many of us cope during the pandemic. If you haven’t tried building mastery, choose an activity that is new and challenging. Start small, knowing you can increase the difficulty level if you need to. Continue challenging yourself by increasing the difficulty when the activity gets easy and no longer makes you feel accomplished. Be on the lookout for the additional challenges posed for perfectionists. And, if you notice that perfectionism is sabotaging your life, your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self-esteem, check out this free guide with seven daily habits you can use to manage perfectionism.