How to stop beating yourself up
If you often beat yourself up about mistakes you make, where you fall short, what you didn’t get round to doing, or how you should be doing more, better etc etc….then read on to find out why, and how to stop this demotivating self-criticism.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
It’s a mixture of neuroscience and how we were raised.
Basically, it’s the old amygdala (in the oldest, 'limbic' section of the brain) that is designed to quickly detect threats and danger – and trigger our fight or flight response. It was originally designed to keep us safe from lions and tigers by ensuring we had another stress hormones in our bodies to make a dash for it. However, it also kicks into action when we apparently make a mistake, screw up – basically do something that means we are not perfect - because not being perfect could mean we are socially rejected - which again connects back to us being cast-out by a tribe, and quite literally not being able to survive out in the wilderness.
On top of this natural brain response, how we were raised will directly influence the degree to which we will beat ourselves up. So depending on how we were reprimanded or punished for 'failing' or getting something 'wrong', and how much 'success' we had to achieve to gain praise and love, will determine these levels of self-punishment in adult life.
So depending on your experiences of this with parents, teachers, or the culture you were raised in, you will be striving for a certain level of success and perfection – or face being rejected (and dying according to the old amygdala).
So knowing this what to do?
Tip 1: Notice & record
The problem with beating yourself up is it will have become so ingrained and automatic, that most of the time you will barely notice you're doing it to yourself. So the first thing you need to do is start catching when you do it, and even better start taking an inventory of the most common things you say to yourself.
"For god's sake why did you get that wrong?"
"You should have worked harder on that".
"Why didn't you know that?!"
"You screwed up again!"
The listen is endless – but when you do start recording, you will notice a theme or a handful of regular self-judgements particular to you.
A great way to help you spot these is to ask yourself –
Would I say this to my dearest friend? How much hurt and pain would that cause?
If not, don’t say it to yourself. Realise the hurt and pain you are causing yourself - on a regular if not daily basis.
Tip 2: Replace
Far from being motivating, self-criticism has been proven to be the exact opposite.
And this is the resistance I usually come up against with high-achieving successful clients – who believe that self-criticism is essential in keeping them going, motivated, achieving, creating the next thing, smashing through the next big barrier. They fear that if they do let go of all of the self-criticism, they will suddenly no longer be motivated to achieve and be successful.
However, five separate psychological studies have all proven that the more self-critical we are, the less likely we are to achieve our goals, plus conversely, the more self-compassionate we are, the more able we are to achieve our goals (and enjoy the ride)
So to all of you high-achieving perfectionists out there...
More self-criticism = less likely to achieve your goals
And the self-judgement will just keep you feeling anxious, worried, inadequate and insecure in the process.
So start replacing each criticism with a dose of motivating self-compassion. Something you would say to a close friend.
Phrases such as:
"That was a really tough situation, you did do your best with what you had/knew at the time"
"Ok, I may not have done great there, but what’s the learning for next time?"
"I love and accept myself exactly as I am"
"I am just human and a work in progress like everyone else"
"What's the kindest thing I can do for myself/say to myself right now?"
Tip 3: Comfort yourself
Because when we are beating ourselves up we have gone into a flight/flight response – remember the good old Amygdala? we will be feeling stressed because of the stress hormone cortisol now pumping through our body.
And a great immediate way to relive that, and bring you out of that negative, judging place (and into a kinder, actually more motivating one), is to physically comfort yourself. I learned about this technique from the queen of self-compassion Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion.
The neuroscience behind this is that by doing something she calls a ‘hugging practice’ we literally self-sooth our way out of the fight-flight response and all of the self-judgement that brings. Doing this releases oxytocin from the brain, which immediately reduces stress levels and makes us feel calm, content, trusting and secure.
And yes, I know it sounds like a weird thing to do, but with those benefits why not try?
Next time you catch yourself going into beating-up mode, literally give yourself a hug. And if people are around you or you're in a meeting, you can do this by folding your arms in a non-obvious way, and give yourself a bit of a squeeze. If that’s not possible, you can even imagine hugging yourself - and this will also give that immediate calming effect.
So that’s it, to recap, my three top tips to stop beating yourself up:
1) notice & record 2) replace 3) comfort
And know that you are good enough, there is no such thing as perfect - you are just human, and a work in progress like the rest of us.