Let’s say you promise yourself to start your day, every day for a month, with five minutes of stretching exercises. It seems like a good, healthy choice, one that is clearly attainable, certainly not impossible to achieve. You’re even proud of yourself that you came up with it and excited to see where it goes.
On the the sixth day of your new routine, you get a call from work, urging you to come in immediately. Just as you’re turning on the ignition, it dawns on you that in the hastiness of your departure, you forgot to do your stretches.
How do you feel about yourself when this happens?
For some of us, this omission feels like a statement on our seriousness of purpose and core personality.
High achievers are hardly likely to cut themselves any slack. They are tough and demanding, harsh taskmasters. If they miss the mark, self-hatred spews forth.
A classic under-achiever will use the same opportunity to belittle himself, smearing the situation with negativity: “There I go again. I should have known I would mess this up.”
If this negative self-talk sounds like you, whether the high-achieving or the under-achieving version, I invite you to stick around and explore this topic with me.
Why are we so hard on ourselves?
Let’s face it, most people judge themselves critically, irrespective of their level of achievement. I can’t recall ever having met a person who was not his own most severe evaluator.
There are a lot of reasons for this.
When we have failed in the past, we may come to believe that this history defines us. If we have quit in the past, we believe that we are quitters. If we have yet to achieve the success we want, we start to feel that we are doomed to always fall short.
Our self-image and internal dialogue can also be shaped by external factors. If you’ve been surrounded by people who direct negativity at you on a constant basis, it would only be natural for you to take this in as reality. If you hear other people say that you’re not good enough, you may fall into the habit of echoing this sentiment and viewing your experiences through this lens.
The demand for perfection, on the other hand, can be born of a reaction to being underestimated (“I’ll show them!”) or out of an internal pressure to succeed in unrealistic ways.
Not very helpful
Negative self-talk will inevitably stunt your growth as a human being. Consider what is likely to happen in the example of the stretching exercises.
The high achiever will write the day off as a failure. He will insist on punishing himself: You didn’t do it, so now you can’t do it. You missed out.
The underachiever has his own version: You even screwed up something like this, something intended for your own betterment. I don’t know why you even bother to try; you’re never going to get anywhere.
Meanwhile, a person with healthy self-talk would say to himself, “Ah, I forgot to do my stretching exercises this morning. That’s okay; I’ll do it when I get home.”
That’s the place you really want to get to. More than any other achievement, you need to accept your mistakes with love so that you can move on from them.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t make any effort, make a mess of your life, and keep going because mistakes are human. I’m also not saying you should let yourself get away with all kinds of scams, not only toward the world but toward yourself. I’m simply suggesting that you focus on doing better when you mess up, rather than on pounding yourself mercilessly.
There’s no value in calling yourself stupid, a loser, pathetic. This is not compassionate or nourishing. It does nothing to push you in the right direction.
How can we break free?
The best way I know of to break out of this pattern is to tell a friend what you’re thinking.
We extend more sympathy to our friends than we do to ourselves. We’re too busy being guilt-ridden or anxious about the future to put things in perspective, whereas our friends can see us more clearly.
If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who can do this for you, take advantage. If not, you can still sit yourself down and try to spot and break the pattern in your own thinking. Consciously develop the self-awareness to see where you are the one putting obstacles in your own path.
Life is already challenging enough without making yourself your own worst enemy.
It boils down to this: Most of us our not our most benevolent coaches. Remember to be kind to yourself; encourage yourself to take even baby steps, and be proud of yourself when you do. It all counts.
We need to embrace more tenderness and compassion toward ourselves in order to live well and be well.