by Cara Stein of 17000 Days
Are you your own worst enemy? Do you get yourself into the same messes over and over? Do you berate yourself for your mistakes and dwell on your shortcomings until difficulties seem insurmountable?
It doesn’t have to be that way.
A lot of people think if they take it easy on themselves, they’ll lose all discipline and melt into a lump on the couch. But studies have shown the opposite to be true.
In one experiment, subjects were asked to eat a donut. The experimental group was reassured that it’s normal to eat unhealthy food sometimes, so they didn’t need to feel bad about eating the donut. The control group was not given this message.
Next, the subjects were asked to taste-test and rate three different kinds of candy. Each subject was given a large bowl of each kind. They were directed to try at least one piece of each kind and have more if they liked. Conventional wisdom would expect the reassured subjects to lack discipline and eat more. Instead, the experimental group was moderate, while the control group reported more guilt about eating and ate more candy.
I’ve experienced the same effects in my own life. I used to be a raving perfectionist, always pushing myself to improve and do everything flawlessly. I looked down on anyone who settled for putting less than their all into anything, and I was used to everything going my way. I would have finished my PhD with a 4.0 if I hadn’t bombed one test in the very last class I took. When that happened, even with most of a PhD successfully completed, it was enough to send me to my porch rocker with a bottle of Boone’s Farm and a crushing sense of despair that I wasn’t good enough to be a PhD candidate.
When perfectionism falls apart
You can get by with being a perfectionist when everything is going well, but if anything goes wrong, it’s a big problem. A few years ago, I developed major concentration problems, and suddenly I went from being an office superstar to Wally from Dilbert. Needless to say, I did not react well.
It forced me to change my entire way of thinking about accomplishments and what I value. Having tried both approaches, I can tell you, being nice to yourself is much better, and it doesn’t mean you’ll spend the rest of your days on the coach eating bonbons. You will still learn and grow and do great things. It will just be because you want to, rather than because you’re afraid you’ll yell at yourself.
A realistic perspective
It’s funny that we think we’ll help ourselves by being hard on ourselves, when most people would never try to help their friends or children that way.
Here are the things I had to learn:
- You don’t have to be perfect.You don’t expect your friends to be perfect, do you? You’re human, too. Nobody can be perfect. Be realistic in your expectations of yourself.
- You don’t have to know everything.When you encounter something you don’t know, you can see it as a threat, or you can see it as a chance to learn and grow. It’s easy to be threatened by things you don’t know if you take their existence to mean you’re inadequate. But it’s impossible to know everything! What’s more, if you take the opportunity to learn when you’re presented with new things, you make yourself more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more awesome all the time.
- You can ask for help.This was a tough one for me–I always hated admitting I didn’t know something or couldn’t do everything myself. That would mean I wasn’t perfect! But the reality is, nobody can do everything alone. If you ask for help, people won’t think you’re weak. Accepting help from people you know is actually a great way to get closer.
- Falling short doesn’t mean you’re stupid or bad. You can do better next time without beating yourself up. Look at what went wrong and see what you can learn from it, but don’t wallow in it or let it stop you.
How to put it into practice
Once you realize you don’t have to be perfect, it’s time to treat yourself accordingly. When things go wrong, notice what you say to yourself in your head.
For me, it was often a long-winded tirade that boiled down to “How could you be so stupid?”
I had learned not to trust my feelings as an accurate portrayal of reality–they’re important indicators when something is wrong and should not be ignored, but they’re not always accurate. But I didn’t realize that my thoughts could also be distorted and inaccurate. You shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you think.
If you find yourself feeling bad, take a step back and look at what you’re thinking. Is it true? Is there another way to look at the situation that’s at least as true but feels better?
Dispute the unproductive thoughts
If you find yourself thinking things that aren’t true or aren’t helpful, I suggest disputing them. I have to admit, when I first heard this advice, I thought it was crazy and dumb, but I tried it, and it works. It’s no crazier than believing untrue things that make you feel bad.
For example, one night I had a fight with someone I’ve known for a long time. He was being nasty and pushing my buttons. I ended the conversation, but I still felt awful. I felt like a fool for trying to have a relationship with someone who would act that way. What was wrong with me? How stupid could I be?
For the first time, I stopped myself right there. Did what I was thinking make sense? How does liking or loving someone make me stupid? How does his acting like a jerk make me stupid?
Step outside yourself and act as an advocate
What would a caring friend say? Well, she’d say the worst I had done was love unwisely. Actually, being understanding and eternally optimistic are some of my best qualities, they just didn’t work out too well in this situation. She’d probably go on to say that I was under a lot of extra stress right then (job situation, trying to sell a house right after the market crash, divorce), and I was doing the best I could.
To my surprise, I started feeling a little better.
I already had Critical Me berating Weak Me; why not create a third internal voice to be Advocate Me, my own best friend? It worked so well, whenever Critical Me started up, I’d bring out Advocate Me to dispute what she was saying and defend myself. I’d think of what a loving friend would say, or what I would say if one of my friends was in a similar situation and someone said the same mean things about them.
You wouldn’t stand by and let your friends be berated and heckled for their shortcomings. Why let it happen to yourself, especially when you’re the bully?
As time has passed, I’ve found that I don’t even need Advocate Me very often any more. I guess I’ve retrained my thinking, because Critical Me hardly ever comes around now.
I recommend trying this as an experiment. If you already have two voices in your head (your weak self and the mean self that attacks it), you might as well start a third to put the nice ones in the majority!
When you don’t make every misstep a misery for yourself, failures seem less catastrophic. That opens you up to a whole world of experiences that you’d be too afraid to try otherwise.
By being your own best friend, you can work with yourself instead of against yourself. It makes life a lot more pleasant. There’s security in knowing that, no matter what else happens, you can always count on yourself for support.
Cara Stein is the author and dreamer at 17,000 Days, a blog about remembering that life is short and making your best days a common occurrence. She loves to help people shape their lives to be more joyful, meaningful, and satisfying.