Don’t let the self critic win

Burnout. It’s a real thing.

Burnout occurs at work, in homes, and everywhere in between. And if you’ve ever been there, you’ll agree… It’s one of the most exhausting and demoralizing feelings in the world. The name, “burnout”, is incredibly accurate at the emotional level. You desperately want to show up and continue to play like a champion, but your passion and fire that once was there, just… isn’t. And trying harder seems to make it worse.

It goes without saying that we want to avoid going there. To accomplish that aim, we first need to identify the reasons why we get burnt out.

It always helps to have context, so let’s imagine we just competed at a CrossFit competition last weekend. And we finished in the “middle of the pack”. It’s now a couple of days later, and we’re reflecting on our performance. A “debrief” of sorts. Take a quick moment to think through some overarching thoughts and emotions you might have, even though there’s no specifics on this imaginary competition.

Now chances are, you’re passionately into self-improvement. And that you’re consistently looking to uncover that next best version of yourself. You would describe yourself as “hungry”. You’re not only willing, but eager, to put in the hard work.

Turning back to our imaginary debrief, we’d likely all have a common bottom line: the self-critic leads the conversation. We would first have gravitated towards the events we performed the worst in. That’s the largest opportunity for growth, right? Indeed it is. Then we would turn to the other events, unpacking each, specifically looking for and focusing in on parts we didn’t perform as well as we wanted to. We wouldn’t focus much on the positives from the weekend, as those aren’t places or parts we’re trying to improve. Because that’s just going to take away from our time and effort towards the things we need to improve, right?

This is the unfortunate misstep in the process that many of us unknowingly take. We end up solely focusing on the things we need to improve, and we never celebrate the victories. And over time, what once was a passion for us, becomes a “job”. We no longer enjoy the components that once set us on fire, and we honestly begin to dread it. Have you ever had a friend who jumped into a new passion or project with such fierce intensity, only to drop off the face of the earth on it and never return? It’s not that they dislike the passion or project.. It’s that they lost balance.

So we obviously realize we need a better balance between the focus of “needs to improve” and the “celebrations”. Going one layer further, let’s talk through some common reasons why. We tend to slip into this pitfall for one of two overarching thoughts:

1) I don’t want to celebrate things here and there, because I’m not “there” yet.

We know this doesn’t work however, as the finish line always moves. In this instance, we are likely too focused on the endstate, and not the day-to-day process of improvement.

2) I don’t want to celebrate, because I don’t want to lose my edge. If I stop to think about “how good I am” or “how far I’ve come”, I’ll become complacent, lazy, and just overall happy with where I am. I’ll lose my drive.

It’s a fair thought. But what if we realized that by stopping periodically to celebrate victories, we’re not only mitigating burnout, but… literally bolstering our performance? That if we could somehow compare the two, the latter version of yourself would outperform the former?

The underlying reason is not only rooted in psychology, but even physiology. When we “celebrate a victory”, we release a very specific hormone: dopamine. It’s the “feel good” hormone. Think back to a time where you worked really hard, and someone acknowledged you for it. Think back to being a student, and imagine the teacher pulled you aside for a moment. “Hey, I just want to let you know you did a fantastic job with that presentation. I could tell that much hard work went into that. I just want to let you know that I’m proud of you!”. Now think genuinely for a second. How would that feel?

Feels good, right? Next question… after that conversation with the teacher, which result is more likely? To become complacent and lazy with your work, or to work harder than ever before?

The victory is quite literally fueling your next victory. For better or worse, Dopamine, that feel-good-hormone, is ridiculously addictive. We as humans will crave that next “dopamine hit”, and we will work harder than ever to get it again. Far harder, than if it never existed.

So heading back to our competition debrief, we might realize that we aren’t celebrating victories. And that’s okay, as this is the most common drawback of the hunger mindset. We now have a massive performance booster we can capitalize on.

In full, we can think of this balance through the 80/20 rule.

80% of the time, we’re focused on the improvements we’ve made.

20% of the time, let’s be critical of ourselves, and do light that fire beneath.

You might think that’s heavily weighted towards the celebration side. And it is. 20% sounds like too little on the “needs to improve”. This is on purpose for two reasons:

1) We tend to live heavily on the self-critic side. I’m intentionally overshooting here, as what “feels” like celebrating 80% in reality might be half of that. All said with a smile, as I’m in the same boat with you :).

2) You know this one: you can only improve so much at once. Pick one thing, and hammer it home. Let the rest be until it’s time. Wasted energy towards something we can’t control/influence can be better spent elsewhere, so we’ll do exactly that.

Sometimes we try to be less emotional when we train or compete. And there are times for that. Ironically enough however, it’s the lack of the right emotions that can be our limiting factor. We are emotional beings, and our performance is undeniably linked to our relationship with it. Stealing a phrase from Ed Mylett here: let’s live in a state of “blissful dissatisfaction”.

Grateful for the past, and eagerly looking forward to the future.

Proud of who we are today, but in the fiery pursuit of the next best version.

Never satisfied, but blissfully dissatisfied.

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