3 Steps to More Compassionate Self-Leadership

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face,” Mike Tyson said.

Sometimes, that punch isn’t literal. It’s life dealing you a blow. And it doesn’t even have to be major to knock the air from your lungs—just well-timed.

I turned on my phone for the first time since my brother and I had walked out of the movie theater, the barrage of simulated gunfire from the film still echoing in my nervous system. We’d just sat down to order dinner when I saw the text from my neighbor. My puppy was yowling. The text had come in an hour ago, undelivered while my phone was off. My neighbor confirmed she was quiet now, but the behavior was so unlike her.

My puppy normally had no problem resting in her crate for a few hours. She’d eaten and had plenty of exercise to set her up for a long nap. But she hadn’t eliminated when given the option. What if she’d really needed to go outside during the movie? Had she made a mess in her crate and was now alone sitting in it? I had to get back to her.

Only once we returned to the car did I remember I’d gotten myself into a tricky parallel parking situation. Cortisol was pumping through my veins from the movie and the image of my puppy scared and uncomfortable. As I was trying to avoid hitting the cars ahead and behind me, I managed to hit a tree to my right, unprotected by a curb. I hopped out, saw the new dent in my car, and then the flood came:

Expensive repairs… Should I even be considering buying a house if this expense stresses me out so much?… I’m a better driver than this!… My insurance will be more expensive now… Stupid, stupid, stupid… Ruining a great night…

Freeze the frame.

Can you hear the fear, anger, and shame? Do you notice how scarcity is paralyzing me and limiting my ability to respond effectively?

When was the last time your mental dialogue sounded like mine? When did life last catch you off guard just enough to send you into a tailspin?

Step 1: Tending to Immediate Needs

In many moments, I am excited about my plan for the future and the person I’m becoming. I hope you can say the same.

But there are other moments. There are moments when fear creates walls I can’t seem to scale or break through. There are moments when I’m certain there is something deeply wrong with me. There are moments when all I want to do is hide. These moments have weight.

Who will we be to ourselves when we’re at our most vulnerable?

I’d recently walked through our LifeFocus process and identified my core values. I’d like to say that when I hit the tree, I stopped and told myself, “This is the moment I get to practice my value for resilience.” I didn’t do that.

But I did try something different. Something new. Instead of frantically problem-solving, I tried slowing down and practicing kindness.

I noticed the panic in my body, resolved to drive home intentionally slowly, and took a long walk with my brother and puppy (who was fine, just thirsty) to help my body calm down. I texted two of my closest friends to tell them what had happened. Then, I straightened my home to create order, ate a late dinner, and went to bed on time. Today’s dent was tomorrow’s problem.

Step 2: Telling a Better Story

Here’s what I didn’t anticipate: My thinking began shifting as I tended to my need for grounding, movement, comfort, and nourishment.

Even as I walked and talked with my brother, my perspective changed. I realized two hours of simulated gunfire (along with the violence accompanying it) was a lot for a mind and body to bear. I was gladI was concerned about the puppy I was responsible for and glad I was paying more attention to the vehicles around me than the tree near my trunk. No one had been hurt. And my emergency fund existed precisely for moments like this: to buffer the unexpected.

The friends I’d told about my mistake met me with compassion. “I have a dent in the back of my car from when I hit a pole backing up after therapy,” one wrote back. “Good, responsible folks are allowed to dent their cars and still be good, responsible folks,” wrote another. “I would still let you drive my car.”

Taking care of myself had caused fear to ebb away. With the help of my friends, I was able to start telling a new story—a better story. This new story allowed me to move forward with confidence instead of retreating in shame.

Step 3: Problem Solving

When life hits hard, it’s tempting to solve and cover up the problem before anyone knows. Self-reliance can be an alluring narrative. But we don’t have access to as many possible solutions when we’re afraid. We lack the emotional resources we need.

With a better story, I could respond differently. I practiced gratitude. I defined my options. I drove back to take pictures of the (unscathed) tree in case I decided to file a claim rather than pay out of pocket. I called a collision center about getting an estimate to help me make that decision. I scheduled time to review my budget and work through finances. I asked more knowledgeable friends for their advice.

And then, since I’m a writer, I thought about how I could repurpose this story to help others be kinder and gentler toward themselves.

We’re all going to end up in situations we wouldn’t have chosen. We’re going to make mistakes and poor decisions we regret. That’s a given. The question is, what will we do in those moments? Will we react out of scarcity and self-punishment, or will we choose a more generous way?

Choosing the more generous way might just give others permission to do the same.

P.S. For more on how telling a better story upgrades your decision-making, read Mind Your Mindset.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we use and believe will add value to our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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