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The Balance Between Self-Discipline and Self-Compassion

What’s more important: self-discipline or self-compassion? If you’re to grow as a human being, which of these features should you work on developing more? This is a profound question, the answer to which is usually oversimplified or misunderstood. The answer, as with many things, can be found by looking at extremes which we’ll do here.

Many people have told me in therapy that they’re looking to work on compassion. Others have said that they want someone to be firm with them and to challenge them more. As we’ll see, it’s never really an either/or choice, but rather both.

Extreme Discipline and Compassion

Let’s look at a person who is completely focused on self-discipline. It’s easy to understand how they’ve come to be so preoccupied with the concept of self-improvement and goal attainment. It’s undoubtedly the predominant philosophy lauded by celebrity gurus and online influencers nowadays. There are literally 1000’s of books published on the topic each year. For this person, it’s the old school maxims that seem the most appealing. It’s: No pain, no gain. It’s all about the hustle and about doing more and better than yesterday.

The person focused solely on self-compassion, however, is completely different. For them, it’s all about going with the flow. Setting goals is simply ‘trying too hard’.

The truth is that very few of us fit into either of these stereotypes. We may identify with one more than the other, but both are present within us.

It’s more likely that we fluctuate between both types of thinking. However, we’re not sure which one to trust. Which one will bring us to the life we truly desire? Which one makes the most sense for us? The problems only really begin to manifest when we take either of these philosophies to extremes. We may be more aware of the problems in taking self-discipline to extremes. But, believe it or not, taking self-compassion to the extreme is no less unhelpful as I’ll demonstrate here.

Self-discipline seems appealing because it’s very straightforward and finite. Just do more and things will get better. Follow these instructions and you’ll arrive eventually. However, when we get completely stuck in the self-discipline or self-improvement mentality, we start to experience inevitable difficulties. The controlling aspect of this approach can lead to neurotic behaviour. Everything needs to be managed (or micromanaged) and perfectionism can creep in.

Worse, the constant striving to improve the self, reinforces the idea that there’s something broken or flawed to begin with. Thus, self-esteem takes a hit. One’s self-worth is constantly been measured and metrics are the only indicator of growth. Moreover, one’s emotions are seen as problematic. They must often be ignored or suppressed if discipline or consistency is to be adhered to.

The opposite extreme, sometimes referred to as ‘flakey’ or ‘New Age’ but probably best described here as overly passive, brings its own issues. The first of these is denial of the fact that, sometimes, there may indeed be things in life worth striving for. When we stop allowing ourselves to want things, we may experience dissociation or emotional numbness.

There is nothing practical to ground one’s life in. Profound spiritual maxims are often misunderstood or misused. Concepts like ‘acceptance’ and ‘unconditionality’ are often used to avoid taking responsibility. It can lead to a delay in moving through an inevitable and essential life transition such as getting a job or becoming financially self-sufficient.

Harmony between Discipline and Compassion

So, neither of these two extremes are particularly useful. In other words, it is only when we get stuck in a position that we start to experience difficulties.

If we notice that we’re in an either/or dilemma regarding the choice between compassion and discipline, we know we’re going down the wrong path. In truth, it is not an either/ or choice. The solution is only found between balancing both of these aspects of the psyche.

When we realize that neither of these states is, in and of itself, enough, we’re on the right track. When we realize that neither of these states is problematic, we’re on the right track. We need to embrace both aspects and realize that we’re constantly moving back and forth, from one to the other.

Yoga is a concept widely known in the West. However, many people don’t realize the meaning of this important concept. The word ‘Yoga’ actually means ‘To Join’ or ‘To Unite’. It describes a ‘bringing together of potential opposites. True power comes from the ability to move between, never to be stuck in one position. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word for ‘suffering’ is ‘Dukkha’ which means ‘wheel that cannot turn’. We need to be capable of movement to avoid the stress or the numbness that defines our suffering.

Traditionally, discipline has been associated with the masculine while compassion has been associated with the feminine. However, this has nothing to do with one’s gender. Karl Jung talked about the masculine and feminine potential within every individual. Within men, the potential to develop the feminine aspect of compassion was referred to as the ‘Anima’. Within women, the potential to develop the masculine aspect of discipline was referred to as the ‘Animus’.

When these aspects are developed, the original orientation is not rejected but is brought into balance with its opposite. Thus, the man who develops his compassion becomes no less masculine. The woman who develops her discipline becomes no less feminine. Both aspects are integrated and work harmoniously when reconciled.

Traits of Discipline and Compassion

Let’s look for a moment at aspects within each orientation.

The feminine is always heart centred. It is open, loving, allowing, nurturing, care-free, creative, receiving, spontaneous, inviting, and forgiving. It is boundless. It is the aspect of the ‘Yin’.

The masculine is grounded in wisdom. It is resolved, strong, ordered, inquiring, precise, penetrating, intellectual, truthful, powerful, and clear. It has defined boundaries. It is the aspect of the ‘Yang’.

Traits of integration

When these aspects become more fully integrated and are working harmoniously as reconciled counterparts, the result could be described as an embodied philosophy. A heart-based wisdom is the result.

The individual is capable of identifying goals that they want to pursue. But they’re also capable of realizing that their happiness or self-worth are not dependent on the outcome.

They can identify when the behaviour of others is inappropriate and needs to be challenged. However, they do so from a place of mutual respect and love. Conflict is addressed, not repressed. Conflict is seen as a way to strengthen relationships rather than to create distance.

They can adhere to action necessary for change to take place. However, they’re also open to their feelings throughout the process of change and work with their nervous system and emotional states rather than in opposition to them.

They can maintain healthy boundaries with their work or goals. However, they’re also not reliant on structure or rules and, leave room in life for spontaneity and experimentation.

They take responsibility for themselves and for those they care for. However, they also recognize their own humanity and realize that mistakes and challenges are completely allowable and even inevitable.

They can identify things they want from other people and have expectations for how their interpersonal relationships should be conducted. However, they also realize that nobody is perfect and that when other people come up short, it doesn’t always mean they are acting selfishly. They recognize the humanity in themselves as well as in others.

They recognize that growth and improvement are important and need to be pursued. However, they also recognize the need for patience and understanding along the way.

The aim is to integrate

The takeaway message here is to realize that both of these aspects within you are acceptable and even necessary. If you’ve ever condemned yourself for a lack of discipline, you may have blamed the ‘weak’ or ‘avoidant’ compassionate side of yourself. If you’ve ever condemned yourself for your lack of compassion, you may have blamed the ‘heartless’ or ‘judgmental’ aspect of yourself.

The point here is that nothing within you needs to be condemned. These feelings are simply showing you that another aspect of yourself wants to be integrated. Compassion wants to work with discipline. Discipline wants to work with compassion. There’s no need to see them as being in competition.

This message is nuanced. That’s likely the reason it is not more widely spoken about. When we’re struggling in life, we often want simple solutions. Simplicity is fine. But we must be careful that the philosophy we use is not simplistic.

As a human being, you’re a complicated individual and any move towards integration and inner reconciliation is likely to involve balance and a recognition that there are many aspects that make up your nature.

You can start to integrate this information by doing some journaling on any thoughts or feelings it has brough up for you. Have you ever judged yourself for a lack of self-discipline? How has that made you feel? Have you ever felt that you needed to be more open emotionally or that you are too cold to others? Did these thoughts and feeling help or did they create even more tension and unease within you?

Remember, we’re aiming for acceptance of another part of ourselves, not the rejection of anything. Any insights you get from journaling or meditating on these concepts should bring about more understanding and peace. We’re looking for reconciliation and the way to know this is being achieved is through your emotions. Less inner conflict, not more, is the goal here.


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