You may have heard the idea that we tend to be harder on ourselves than any other person. This is true for so many people. Without thinking about it, we often live our lives with the underlying assumption that if we push ourselves to the limit and guilt-trip ourselves when we don’t live up to expectations, that the negative reinforcement of those harsh words will be the precise driving force of our success and attainment of happiness. We want to be more successful, more fit, more loving to others, more attractive, more respected… just more than we already are. We yearn for more happiness, and we think that we need to be more in order to earn that happiness. Out of desperation we turn up the pressure on ourselves, allowing our self-talk becoming stern and sometimes even cruelly judgemental.
The idea of this exaggerated harshness to yourself might ring true to you, or it might at first glance sound a bit dramatic. You might think to yourself, “Sure, I am not sweet talking myself, but it’s not that big of a deal.” However, is also possible that you might surprise yourself if you took a step back and imagined your self-talk being directed outward to someone else someone who you cared about. Often people cringe when they take this alternate perspective on their self-talk; “Yikes! I would never say that to anyone”. Certainly, you would “check yourself” if you could sit back and clearly witness the harm that negative talk can have another person. But somehow, we have set a double standard and happily welcomed this criticism into our own lives!
Another way to find evidence of a double standard is to ask yourself, “Would I let someone else speak to me this way?” It is often the case that we would not accept the same words from other person.
Suddenly we are starting to see some holes in our “no pain, no gain” attitude. Indeed, you would be eager to tell such a negative, judgemental person to bugger-off, and certainly wouldn’t pull up a chair and hang off their every word. This gut reaction is helpful. Your immediate, “Hell no! I don’t want to hear that!” is possible because on some level your intuition is strongly aware that intense criticism is actually not constructive.
How then have we been duped into allowing this negative energy into our lives, often for years and decades, without us being up in arms against it? This is puzzling. Why don’t we simply sit back and realize that it didn’t work the last hundred times we criticized ourselves? Don’t be too hard on yourself now, because it is simply not that easy! The fact is that when we live with this internal voice day in and day out, this state of being becomes our new “normal”, and we don’t even notice the harshness.
We become increasingly accustomed to over time to the negative emotions we experience and our lack of becoming that more that we seek and effectively lose hope of ever being content. Although our trusted strategy is simply not working, it is easy at that point to listen to that critical voice tell you that “this isn’t working because you aren’t trying hard enough” or “if only I was sterner with myself, I would have done better.” We again blame ourselves instead of recognizing that it is simply that our strategy holds us back. Stuck in this pattern long enough, and we can even begin doubting whether we are worthy of ever being content or feeling happiness.
When left unchecked, we lose sight of the power of positive encouragement and may start to lose confidence in ourselves. However, as you are beginning to appreciate, this basic assumption that we must be self-critical in order to achieve success is false! Self-criticism robs us of appreciating our successes, revelling in special moments, and ever feeling the satisfaction we crave. It robs us of an appreciation of our strengths and abilities, which we could otherwise use for our benefit. It diminishes hope and therefore our motivation to pursue our dreams. The criticism leaves us only with a feeling of underlying dissatisfaction and inadequacy, for which we blame ourselves, and the cycle continues. “If only I was more…” And around we go again. Not very effective is it?
I am happy to tell you that there is hope: It is much easier to break this self-defeating pattern than you might think! The secret to making a shift is learning about and practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion is a skill that takes practice to develop, and is essentially the opposite of self-criticism and judgement. Developing an attitude of self-compassion inevitably pulls you towards contentment and positive emotions, with then leads to many positive outcomes.
This topic is one you can share with your therapist, letting them know it’s an area you’d like to grow within as you shift toward self-compassion. Our therapists are happy to offer a consultation to help get the conversation going!