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Guest blog: Nurturing self-compassion in dance

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

I have another fantastic guest blog this month from Céline Kosirnik, who is a PhD Candidate at the University of Lausanne. Céline is conducting her research on self-compassion in dance, and has outlined the key principles and some practical tips below. Thank you, Céline, for this wonderful article!



Do you remember learning to ride a bike when you were a child? Your parents would stand behind you, cheering you on and saying, "Well done! That's great, keep going, you'll get there!" When you stumbled, they kept encouraging you. You felt safe, confident and loved, filled with compassion. Fast forward to adulthood and this motivational attitude seems to fade, especially in performance settings like dance. But should this be the case?


Dancers often face a multitude of challenges and difficulties. The nature of the art form, which demands excellence, can lead to self-critical attitudes in order for dancers to perform at their best. This self-critical approach may seem like a way of pushing oneself to get better, but is it the only or even the best solution? Research in the world of performance, with athletes, musicians and dancers, has shown that self-compassion can be a game changer. Not only does it increase motivation, it also improves overall wellbeing and performance. However, balancing mental toughness – the ability to persevere no matter what and be resilient in all situations – with self-compassion is a balance that is sometimes difficult to find and takes work and practice.


Self-compassion and dancers

Research shows that self-compassion has an inverse relationship with a range of feelings. That is to say, the less self-compassionate one is, the more one tends to experience body-related anxiety, fear of negative judgement, negative emotions and the tendency to catastrophize situations. On the other hand, self-compassion can help maintain emotional balance in action. This suggests that self-compassion may act as a protective layer against negative self-views in settings where dancers are frequently evaluated.


For example, Tarasoff, Ferguson and Kowlaski (2017) found that higher levels of self-compassion were associated with lower social body anxiety and lower likelihood of fearing negative evaluation, suggesting that those who are more self-compassionate are less anxious and fearful in settings where their performance is judged. In addition, self-compassion is positively associated with balanced emotional responses and constructive or helpful self-evaluation processes.


Walton, Osborne, Gilbert & Kirby (2022) also highlighted that dancers often exhibit traits of extreme competitiveness, perfectionism, distorted self-perception and elevated levels of self-criticism, all of which can be detrimental to their mental well-being. They are also subject to intense scrutiny, critical evaluation and various stressors, including performance setbacks, questions about competence, body image and weight concerns, financial instability, job insecurity and physical injury. Self-compassion can help dancers to give themselves the care they need in the face of these challenges, to encourage effort and pursue goals in a supportive way.


The three pillars of self-compassion

Self-compassion consists of three pillars:

· Self-kindness: the compassion we have for ourselves;

· Common humanity: the ability to feel that we are not alone in what we are experiencing;

· Mindfulness: the ability to be in the present moment, experiencing what we are experiencing and not anticipating, projecting or ruminating about a situation


By developing self-compassionate skills, the aim is to reduce self-criticism, feel less lonely and isolated in difficult situations, and avoid over-identifying with negative events that dancers may encounter in their daily practice.


Steps to integrate and nurture self-compassion in your practice

A few small steps and exercises, practised and trained on a regular basis, could help dancers develop their compassionate selves.


1. Recognize

First, it's important to recognize when you're being harsh and overly self-critical with yourself. Awareness is the first step in changing the situation.

Ask yourself:

· What is my inner self-critic trying to tell me?

· Is my inner self-critic helping me in this situation?


Depending on the situation, your inner self-critic may not be the best voice to listen to.


2. Your own reactions have an effect

The way you react to challenges and difficult situations is crucial.


It's important to be aware of your own reactions in difficult situations, because sometimes natural reactions are not helpful (e.g. "I think negatively", "I'm afraid of other people's judgement", "I get angry").


Nurturing your inner dialogue in a more compassionate way can lead to faster recovery from setbacks.


3. Nurturing your compassionate self in difficult times

Once you have realized that you have been overly critical of yourself and that the way you react to a particular situation may not be helpful, it is time to nurture your compassionate inner voice.


Instead of only engaging in self-pity or criticism, ask yourself, "What do I need right now?”

· Learn to identify and clarify your needs. This is the cornerstone of self-sufficiency.

· Be aware of your bodily sensations and emotions in this particular moment. This will help you to better manage your reactions.

· Discover your inner coach and work on cultivating a kinder inner dialogue. Your inner coach should be your greatest supporter.


How can you develop a compassionate inner voice when you need it most?

You can identify moments of positive self-talk and build on them.


You can also think about what you'd say to a friend in a similar situation.

· What would my best friend say to me?

· What would a really caring person say to me?

· What tone of voice would reassure me?

· What do I really need right now?


4. Environment and self-care

As the dance world is a competitive and demanding one, nurturing your own gratitude and practising self-care can help your performance and improve your wellbeing. Your environment also plays an important role in how you feel and perform. Do not hesitate to share your experiences with others. Even the most experienced dancers have faced challenges and difficult times in their careers, and sharing your own experiences can help you feel more connected and less isolated.


In conclusion, the way we respond to events has a significant impact on our performance and well-being. It's time to integrate mindfulness and self-compassion strategies into our daily practice and see what happens. By embracing self-compassion, we can create a healthier, more supportive environment for ourselves and others, leading not only to better performance, but also to a more fulfilling life. After all, the most important relationship you'll ever have is the one you have with yourself. So why not make it a compassionate one?


References:

Courtney C. Walton, Margaret S. Osborne, Paul Gilbert & James Kirby (2022) Nurturing self-compassionate performers, Australian Psychologist, 57:2, 77-85, DOI: 10.1080/00050067.2022.2033952


Tarasoff, L., Ferguson, L., and Kowlaski, K. (2017). Self-compassion in an evaluative dance environment. Univ. Saskatchewan Undergrad. J. 3, 1–11. doi: 10.32396/usurj.v3i1.130



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