Don McGrath, author of Vertical Mind and 50 Athletes Over 50 and creator of, guest blogs today, giving us some useful advice regarding self-compassion. Mindset in climbing is huge! Read on to see how your climbing can improve by practicing self-compassion. Thanks Don!


Since Conquer the Crux helps climbers be mindful in their climbing, I decided to share this excerpt from Vertical Mind. In it, co-author Jeff Elison and I discuss self-compassion and how to develop it with respect to climbing so that you can perform better and have more fun.

Self-Compassion is a powerful construct, with some Eastern influences. It is also a multi-dimensional construct, meaning it has multiple components. Kristin Neff developed the Self-Compassion scale to measure and study the multiple components of self-compassion. What follows is a list of the three components with a short description of each and examples from her questionnaire of: a) each positive component; and b) its opposite, a negative component:

  1. Self-Kindness: Acknowledge and accept negative outcomes as real (if they are real). Don’t ignore or exaggerate them. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes.
    1. Example: “I’m tolerant of my own flaws and inadequacies.”
    2. Counter-example (Self-Judgment): “When I see aspects of myself that I don’t like, I get down on myself.”
  2. Common Humanity: We all suffer, we all fail, we all make mistakes. We are not isolated and alone in our problems.
    1. Example: “When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people.”
    2. Counter-example (Isolation): “When I fail at something that’s important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure.”
  3. Mindfulness: Focus on the present moment, the task at hand. Don’t over-identify with outcomes, keep things in perspective.
    1. Example: “When I fail at something important to me, I try to keep things in perspective.”
    2. Counter-example (Over-Identification): “When I’m feeling down, I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that’s wrong.”

Research backs the effectiveness of self-compassion. Correlational research shows that people who tend to approach negative events and failures with self-compassion are happier and healthier. They are also more likely to have the types of scripts we, as climbers, want: higher mastery motivation and lower fear of failure. Experimental research demonstrates causality; when subjects are given instruction in self-compassion, they have more positive outcomes.

Positive reinforcement word Compassion engrained in a rockCompassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Most people expect us to be capable of sympathy. In other words, we should care for others who are suffering or feeling badly. So, shouldn’t we be compassionate toward ourselves too?

The descriptions of Self-Kindness, Common Humanity, and Mindfulness above give you some ideas for how you can be compassionate toward yourself. Let’s look at them in more detail. The examples and counter-examples are from Neff’s Self-Compassion Scale, a self-report questionnaire. So, they give us ideas of what we shouldn’t be doing and what we should be doing instead.

For example, imagine you have been working on your project every weekend for the last month. You mentally rehearsed the beta twenty times this past week, you trained hard early in the week, you rested Thursday and Friday. You feel ready, almost sure you will send on Saturday . . . but you don’t! What you don’t want to do is the opposite of Self-Kindness: Self-Judgment. Self-Judgmental responses would be losing patience with yourself, beating yourself up mentally, telling yourself you suck or you are worthless. Instead, with Self-Kindness you would be understanding about the outcome, patient that maybe you need more time or rest, and you would be able to enjoy a beer with friends around the campfire—self-worth intact! Oh, and your friends would be able to enjoy you—you would be more fun to be around because Self-Kindness isn’t wallowing in self-pity.

Extending this same example, the opposite of Common Humanity is Isolation. The latter, to-be-avoided responses include feeling cut-off or isolated from other people, believing that they are happier or their lives are easier. Instead, you could respond in terms of Common Humanity—either all of humanity or just your commonality with other climbers. You would realize that difficulties are part of climbing and all climbers face them. You would remember that lots of other climbers didn’t send today. If feelings of inadequacy are gnawing at you, you would remind yourself that they gnaw at everyone.

Finally, the opposite of Mindfulness is Over-Identification. You don’t want your mind to be fixated on that one goal, consumed by what the day’s outcome means for your self-worth, blowing outcomes out of proportion. Instead, keep some perspective: It’s just climbing; you will send it eventually. Approach the outcome with curiosity and openness. Constructively ask yourself what you could have done differently, so you learn from it.

Self-Compassion is a relatively new area of study in psychology, but the research is very promising. Several books have already been published on the topic. If you think learning more about it will help you in terms of performance, happiness, or self-esteem, check out: Self-Compassion (Neff, 2011); The Compassionate Mind (Gilbert, 2010); The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (Germer & Salzberg, 2009)

Exercise: The next time you feel badly about failing to achieve some climbing goal, note your response in terms of these self-compassion dimensions. Do you blow it out of proportion, or do you keep it in proper perspective? Do you feel isolated in your failure, or do you remind yourself that others have done the same? Do you get caught up in self-criticism, or do you show yourself self-compassion? This exercise can be applied to other situations besides climbing. If you are unhappy with your response to the situation, can you replace some of those problem scripts?

Jeff and I provide many drill sand exercises for altering non-productive scripts in our book Vertical Mind. Check it out to learn more. It’s available in paperback, and as an audiobook for IOS and Android.


Don McGrath

author of Vertical Mind and 50 Athletes Over 50