Discipline vs. Compassion

Discipline and Compassion seem like polar opposites, in constant conflict over the way we feel, think, and act. But is that really the case, and how can we use them in our wellness journey?

If you spend enough time in the health and wellness space – especially online – you start to notice some distinct patterns in the language people use to describe what it takes to achieve and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

The first one you’ll hear mentioned frequently is Discipline. Self-Discipline is defined as “correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement.” This concept is attributed to the attitude, actions, and mindset of individuals that commit to seemingly difficult choices, like maintaining a consistent exercise regimen or wholesome diet. It’s a favorite word on motivational-poster style #fitspiration images, and is commonly held up as one of the ideal traits one must possess to succeed, particularly when it comes to living a “healthy lifestyle” among the temptations of modern society.

More recently, though, we are also starting to hear a lot about Compassion. This is especially true in the wellness space, where people are talking more about holistic health practices, mind/body awareness, and intuitive approaches to movement and food. Self-Compassion is defined as “being kind and understanding [to oneself] when confronted with personal failings.” Compassion is seen as the counterpoint to harshness and perfectionism, and is often spoken about in the same breath as self-care.

On the surface, these two concepts seem to be opposing forces pulling us in completely different directions: one towards improvement, and one towards contentment. But is it really not possible to be both disciplined with one’s actions and compassionate towards one’s self? How do we reconcile these two forces? Is one or both more necessary for a truly healthy lifestyle?

Finding patterns: ideas at odds

As part of my investigation into these ideas, I interviewed several of my colleagues at various technology and design events. The people I spoke to were from a wide spectrum of backgrounds in age, career, education, and waypoints in their own health and fitness journeys. Whether they were younger than me or older than my parents, a full time employee or a an independent professional, a salaried worker or an agency owner, already dedicated to a health and fitness goal or just focused on living the rest of their lives, it was fascinating to watch certain patterns emerge across the board.

When I first asked for their initial thoughts on the concept of Self-Discipline, a common lament was how difficult it was. They wished they had more of it, they believed it was something they should possess, and they often attributed it to something (like exercise) that they felt they weren’t doing enough

Interestingly enough, when I then followed up by asking people to tell me about their thoughts on the concept of Self-Compassion, their expressions immediately changed to something more serious, more inwardly reflective. Oh, they would say. THAT is much, much harder.

But why is that?

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic

Discipline was attributed to an outside force (such as a regimented program) whereas Compassion was supposed to come from within. If compassion has to come from within, it might be more difficult to cultivate successfully than it would be to follow the right set of external rules.

Doing vs. Feeling

Discipline was seen as an action, or a culmination of a series of actions, whereas Compassion was described as a feeling. Many people remarked that it seemed easier to try to control their actions than it was to try to change how they felt. If compassion is a feeling, it would certainly seem much harder to obtain than it would be to perform a new set of behaviors.

Head vs. Heart

Discipline was thought to originate more from the brain, in logical thought. This was contrasted with compassion, which people treated as an emotional response or gut feeling. I was told that it is much easier to try to change your mind than it is to change your heart. If compassion is guttural or instinctual, it appears to be quite a challenge to be able to influence it as easily as you can learn to change your thought process.

Is it true? Does discipline control the rational things you do on the outside, while compassion controls the emotional things you feel on the inside? Or is there something else going on?

Finding patterns: exploring rewards & risks

Many of the ways people spoke about discipline converged around two ideas: “reward” concepts, or the benefits they associated with a successful practice, and “risk” concepts, or the worries and anxieties they had about achieving (or not achieving) that goal.

Discipline: perceived rewards & risks

Rewards: Demonstrating action, commitment, confidence, perseverance, tenacity, and warriorship
In summary: “I’ve accomplished something”

Risks: It’s grueling, exhausting, rigid, difficult, and wrought with self-contempt and shame
In summary: “I’m never going to be good enough”

As a Persona, Discipline would be The Drill Sergeant – harsh, aggressive, and pulling no punches. The one who stands over you, struggling facedown in the dirt, screaming about getting out another set of reps. The drill seargant is the hardass that wants to shape you into your peak of physical and mental capability. But they’re also seen as terrifying, difficult to approach, incapable of empathy, and when you’re around them you’re constantly worried about not measuring up. 

Compassion: percieved rewards & risks

Rewards: Demonstrating boundaries, kindness, generosity, gentleness, forgiveness, and grace
In summary: “I’m at peace with myself”

Risks: Being selfish, lazy, stagnant, or avoiding responsibilities
In summary: “I’m never going to get anything accomplished”

As a persona, Compassion would be The Hippie – soft-spoken, joyful, and full of love for the world. The one who offers you a crown of flowers, tells you to relax, slow down, and appreciate where you are right now. The hippie is the positive thinker that is deeply connected to the moment and offering positive feelings and good vibes. But they’re also seen as unmotivated, pathologically lazy, incapable of accomplishing anything, and when you’re around them you feel a bit like your life is in a fog.

Finding patterns: breaking toxic mindsets

Now I believe we are starting to get to the root of the issue, and why it appears that discipline and compassion are opposites. When we look beyond the surface, what we are really talking about is employing the toxic mindsets of fear and shame to attempt to influence behavior

When we believe that discipline is a rational trait which manifests itself through our actions, we feel shame when our behaviors do not match what we believe a “rational” action would be. If we also think that discipline requires an external stimulation to create motivation, we may seek harsher and harsher sources of that motivation if we don’t perceive our behaviors changing quickly enough, and we fear what will happen if we stop.

When we look at compassion as something that is an inherent, internal trait, we feel shame when it is not easy for us to love ourselves. If we also believe that having “too much” compassion becomes an excuse to avoid work or growth, we fear ourselves because we believe this tendency lies within us. We may turn towards harsh or shaming behaviors (such as the ones we listed above) to try to run away from this fear through our actions.

The truth is, discipline and compassion are both internal and external practices, and each depends on the other in order to succeed. In fact, by allowing them to work together we can avoid some of the toxic mindsets that we may have fallen into in the first place. Doing the work of extending kindness to yourself when your energy level or available time is low, rather than berating yourself for not doing well, requires self-discipline. Choosing to honor and nourish yourself in a time of stress by eating healthy foods, getting sleep, or staying active, rather than employing a destructive coping mechanism, requires self-compassion.

How do you employ discipline and compassion in your life? Has this article changed the way you look at these ideas? I’d love to hear from you!

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