One yellow smiley face ball surrounded by grey sad faces to illustrate depression or internal sadness

What We Resist Persists

by Dr. Ruth Zaplin, Senior Executive-in-Residence, Key Executive Leadership Programs, American University School of Public Affairs

How often do these tapes play in your head just like a radio playing in the background?  “I’m not…”

Various images of people experiencing forms of sadness and self doubt

…good enough

…perfect enough

…thin enough

…rich enough

…successful enough

…smart enough


Brené Brown calls these “scarcity” tapes.  Do you have one of these scarcity tapes playing in your head? Or another scarcity tape? Can you think of a time when a scarcity tape got the better of you and kept you from doing something you really wanted to do?

The good news is that we can deal with our scarcity tapes by bearing witness to them and responding with kindness to ourselves. Kindness to ourselves, self-compassion, doesn’t mean self-pity, self-absorption or self-indulgence. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche identified a syndrome he termed “idiot compassion.” Towards self, idiot compassion is self-pity, self-absorption, or self-indulgence. Towards others, idiot compassion is more an enabling behavior. It manifests as the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you are more concerned with your own feelings than with attending to what will actually be truly helpful to another.

You could think of self-compassion as a “putting on your own oxygen mask first before helping another” approach.  Doesn’t it make sense that we can’t relate with others’ suffering if we can’t deal with our own first?

A woman grabbing at puzzle pieces to fill her missing parts

So, how do we create a more open and loving relationship with ourselves? We start by treating ourselves as we would treat a dear friend. When we notice we are playing a scarcity tape in our head, we hold it as “object.” With an open and curious mind, we ask ourselves, “What if this scarcity tape were not a problem to resist, but something I could actually learn from and accept as it is?”

It’s important to remember that what we resist persists. Examining whatever we notice without judgment and with an open and curious mind, is practicing self-kindness. By practicing self-kindness in this way, we’re able to actively soothe, comfort, and care for ourselves, just like we would for a dear friend.

One way to cultivate our capacity for self-kindness is through mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness meditation practice enables us to see our habitual mental and emotional patterns, including the scarcity tapes we may not normally be aware of. Mindfulness meditation also helps us cultivate our connection to our inherently aware, basic nature which is a direct portal to our deeper qualities like self-kindness.

By practicing mindfulness and gathering our attention here, in the present moment, we gain familiarity with our basic nature. We begin to see ourselves more clearly, including those parts of ourselves we do not normally see. And, with confidence in our basic nature of inherent awareness, we make the invisible visible. By so doing, we bring awareness even to those parts of ourselves we may have been ashamed of.

The Buddha once asked a student: “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He then went on to explain, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.” By cultivating familiarity with how our mind works and fostering self-kindness, we can actually do something about the second arrow.

Think of mindfulness meditation as mental hygiene, not unlike dental hygiene. You wouldn’t leave your house in the morning without brushing your teeth. Once mindfulness becomes part of your routine, you’ll find taking a few minutes to check in with yourself—see how you are, just as you are, each day—will come to feel just as indispensable as you prepare to go out into the world and interact with other people. And if you keep at it, you might even find that scarcity tapes aren’t playing in the background quite so often.

About the Author

Zaplin, Rith Jan 2018Dr. Ruth Zaplin is an Executive-in-Residence, School of Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration & Policy and Director of International Programs, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. Dr. Zaplin served as a senior advisor and project director with the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington, DC and founded the Academy’s Global Leadership Consortium. As a Senior Manager at BearingPoint, she led enterprise-wide transformation plans, large-scale government reform, workforce restructuring, and work redesign initiatives in both the public and private sectors. Selected achievements include: leadership development, succession planning, and diversity study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; designing a Government Center for Innovation to strengthen the capability of the State of Qatar’s public sector leaders and serve as a leadership development model of excellence for the Middle East; and leading the organizational change effort to integrate the core IRS financial management systems. Equally adept at bridging research, organizational theory and practice, her background includes executive leadership of a nationally known non-governmental organization and social science research in criminal justice. Dr. Zaplin has two nationally known textbooks in criminal justice and numerous book chapters related to leadership development. She holds a DPA, MPA, MA, and BA. She is certified to score the subject-object qualitative research methodology developed at Harvard University. She received her Executive Coaching accreditation from Georgetown University and is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the International Coach Federation.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

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