I used to think there were two types of people. Those that got things done because they were strong and driven, full of willpower. And those who dreamed big dreams and talked about doing big things but lacked the self-discipline to follow-through. I was judgmental back then. Mostly judgmental towards myself, believing I fell in the second category. I lacked all understanding of the psychology of motivation, productivity, and behavior change.
I’ve been a therapist for 10 years now, and I’ve seen thousands of clients, each unique in what’s shaped them. Many carry the pain of trauma(s), and almost all of them have experienced some adverse event that affects the way they see themselves.
Now, I believe that everyone has the strength to do hard things. I understand that the difference between people who achieve their goals and those whose dreams lay dormant is in their beliefs about themselves. But, whether I think you are strong has little bearing on whether you will reach your full potential. Rather, what is it that YOU think about yourself?
When I didn’t believe I was strong enough, smart enough, or capable enough, I stood still. Overthinking, overanalyzing, in a state of “analysis paralysis.” Even when people told me I was strong and smart; I didn’t believe in my own capability. Up until then, I typically quit anything that got too tough, and it wasn’t until I proved my strength to myself by sticking through something hard that I started to believe in myself. Then I got curious about what else I could achieve.
I started proving to myself that I was capable through the practice of mastery.
Mastery is doing something that makes you feel confident and competent and gives you a sense of accomplishment. The activity must be hard enough that it’s challenging but not so hard that it’s impossible to achieve the first time you set out to do it. For example, if you’ve never run, mastery might mean running for 60 seconds without stopping and then gradually increasing over time. Mastery is trying activities that are new and sticking through when it gets hard, without setting yourself up for failure by choosing an activity that is going to be too difficult to begin with.
Mastery is about balance.
Nature led me to mastery, though it’s not what I was looking for. I was drawn to the outdoors as a way to stay connected to my dad after he passed away. I went on a short hike that made my body ache afterwards. And then I wondered, how far could I hike next time? And then, to what elevation? I started challenging myself and lo and behold, I started believing I could do harder things. Physically, mentally, and emotionally. In a world where I had been taught to be quiet and small, the outdoors gave me an opportunity to do things that made me feel big and powerful. Even when they were scary. I learned that you don’t have to be 100% confident that you’ll be successful in order to take risks. You just have to be confident that there’s A CHANCE of success. Years of building mastery has taught me that there’s ALWAYS a chance.
In mental health news, mastery builds resistance to depression and anxiety. It helps us feel confident, which improves our mood. It makes us feel more "in control" of our environment, which alleviates anxiety. It increases “feel good” emotions, like joy, peace, and contentment.
Many of us are not taught that mastery and self-compassion are keys to being motivated and “getting things done,” so I’ve created a coaching program to help women build these skills! We will explore the stories women tell themselves about motivation and willpower and how these stories actually create barriers to reaching goals. In this program, I’ve used psychological science to build simple strategies to create more energy and motivation. It launches July 14 and I’ll be releasing registration info in the coming weeks!
How do you build mastery? Leave a comment!
Goal setting is an important component of therapy and should happen early on. It provides a road map for both the therapist and the client each session and helps to keep us on track. Recently, I was having a session with a client and we were discussing her goal to reduce her binge eating episodes and replace them with healthier eating habits. I posed a question I typically ask all my clients: “What do you think has gotten in the way of making this change in the past?” And, I heard it! The statement I get from women (and men) time and time again. “Well, I guess I just don’t have enough willpower.”
You know that if you could reach your goals, you’d be happier and more fulfilled. How many times have you said to yourself, “If I just had more willpower, I’d… go back to school, write a book the world needs right now, read about how to communicate better with my partner, learn how to parent more effectively, get healthier and stick with it, pick up the hobby I’ve been saying I want to do for the last three years.” What comes next is all too familiar for most of us. We beat ourselves up a little more than last time, judge ourselves harshly, thinking we fell short again, and remain highly self-critical. We think if we’re just a little harder on ourselves it will generate a type of willpower that we don’t currently have but desperately need.
Here’s a secret. IT’S NOT ABOUT WILLPOWER. At least not completely. While self-discipline can help us reach our goals, research shows that SELF-COMPASSION can also help us stick to healthy behaviors. And for many, self-compassion is the first step in increasing self-control.
If you fall short but believe you can learn from the experience and do better next time, you are more likely to reach your goal over time. This growth mindset begins by challenging the myths you believe about yourself, like “I’m not strong enough or smart enough.” You develop a growth mindset not through willpower, but by exposing yourself to new and challenging situations with the goal of learning rather than performing perfectly. As you build feelings of worthiness, confidence, and self-compassion, you are less likely to quit when you make a mistake and more apt to keep pushing forward even as it remains difficult.
Spending time in nature can help you build these skills. You can engage in outdoor activities to bust the myths you believe about yourself, by hiking further than you’ve ever hiked, breaking a sweat, and pushing your limits with each outing. I’ve been running outdoors for about five years. It’s still not easy for me. Sure, it’s not as challenging to run a mile as it was when I first started but running is still difficult and may always be that way for me. I’m not naturally athletic, my heart rate elevates quickly, and a lot of my energy is spent focusing on regulating my breathing. What has changed about my running routine, however, is my ability to see each run as an opportunity to learn something about my body and how it works, try different breathing techniques, and practice gratitude. Focusing on my “why,” that is, the purpose behind why I run, has also helped me shift from thinking only about reaching my goals to one of challenging myself for the sake of growing.
I have heard client after client say that building more willpower is the answer to reaching their goals. I’ve worked with too many clients to count, helping them grow SELF-COMPASSION instead, so they can be kinder to themselves and less judgmental. And when they make these changes, they always start to move closer to their goals than when they were trying to shore up willpower alone. Because of both these professional experiences and my own personal one, I decided to create a coaching program that will explore the stories women tell themselves about motivation and willpower and how these stories actually create barriers to reaching their goals. I also aim to teach participants more helpful strategies for reaching goals, based on psychological science that includes harnessing the power of nature to create more energy and motivation. It launches next month and I can’t wait to share more about it in the coming weeks!
Dyouck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York : Ballantine Books.