The high cost of beating yourself up habitually

Are you your own biggest critic? Do you always berate yourself for your weaknesses? Beating yourself up is a terrible habit that does immense harm to you

Man frustrated covering his face

"This kind of compulsive concern with 'I, me, and mine' isn’t the same as loving ourselves… Loving ourselves points us to capacities of resilience, compassion, and understanding within that are simply part of being alive."
—Sharon Salzberg, The Force of Kindness

In this incredibly competitive society of ours, how many of us truly feel good about ourselves? It seems such a fleeting thing—feeling good—especially as we need to feel special and above average to feel worthy. Anything less seems like a failure. I remember once as a freshman in college, after spending hours getting ready for a big party, I complained to my boyfriend that my hair, makeup, and outfit were woefully inadequate. He tried to reassure me by saying, “Don’t worry, you look fine.”

Fine? Oh great, I always wanted to look fine...”

The desire to feel special is understandable. The problem is that, by definition, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average at the same time. Although there are some ways in which we excel, there is always someone smarter, prettier, more successful. How do we cope with this? Not very well. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison. But this strategy comes at a price—it holds us back from reaching our full potential in life.

Distorting mirrors

If I have to feel better than you to feel good about myself, then how clearly am I really going to see you, or myself for that matter? Let’s say I had a stressful day at work and am grumpy and irritable with my husband when he gets home later that evening [purely hypothetical, of course]. If I’m highly invested in having a positive self-image and don’t want to risk viewing myself in a negative light, I’m going to slant my interpretation of what transpires to make sure that any friction between us is seen as my husband’s fault, not my own.

“Good, you’re home. Did you pick up the groceries?”

“I just walked though the door, how about ‘Nice to see you, dear, how was your day?’ ”

“Well, if you weren’t so forgetful, maybe I wouldn’t have to always hound you.”

“As a matter of fact, I did pick up the groceries.”

“Oh . . . Well, um . . . It’s the exception that proves the rule. I wish you weren’t so unreliable.”

Not exactly a recipe for happiness.

Why is it so hard to admit when we step out of line, are rude, or act impatient? Because our ego feels so much better when we project our flaws and shortcomings on to someone else. It’s your fault, not mine. Just think about all the arguments and fights that grow out of this simple dynamic. Each person blames the other for saying or doing something wrong, justifying their own actions as if their life depended on it, while both know, in their heart of hearts, that it takes two to tango. How much time do we waste like this? Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could just confess and play fair?

But change is easier said than done. It’s almost impossible to notice those aspects of ourselves that cause problems relating to others, or that keep us from reaching our full potential, if we can’t see ourselves clearly. How can we grow if we don’t acknowledge our own weaknesses? We might temporarily feel better about ourselves by ignoring our flaws, or by believing our issues and difficulties are somebody else’s fault, but in the long run we only harm ourselves by getting stuck in endless cycles of stagnation and conflict.

If I have to feel better than you to feel good about myself, then how clearly am I really going to see you, or myself for that matter?

The costs of self-judgement

Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash. And right after the crash comes a pendulum swing to despair as we realise that, however much we’d like to, we can’t always blame our problems on someone else. We can’t always feel special and above average. The result is often devastating. We look in the mirror and don’t like what we see [both literally and figuratively], and the shame starts to set in. Most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves when we finally admit some flaw or shortcoming. I’m not good enough. I’m worthless. It’s not surprising that we hide the truth from ourselves when honesty is met with such harsh condemnation.

In areas where it is hard to fool ourselves—when comparing our weight to those of magazine models, for instance, or our bank accounts to those of the rich and successful—we cause ourselves incredible amounts of emotional pain. We lose faith in ourselves, start doubting our potential, and become hopeless. Of course, this sorry state just yields more self-condemnation for being such a do-nothing loser, and down, down we go. Even if we do manage to get our act together, the goalposts for what counts as “good enough” always seem to remain frustratingly out of reach. We must be smart and fit and fashionable and interesting and successful and sexy. Oh, and spiritual, too. And no matter how well we do, someone else always seems to be doing it better. The result of this line of thinking is sobering: millions of people need to take pharmaceuticals every day just to cope with daily life. Insecurity, anxiety, and depression are incredibly common in our society, and much of this is due to self-judgements and beating ourselves up when we feel we aren’t winning in the game of life.

Continually feeding our need for positive self-evaluation is a bit like stuffing ourselves with candy. We get a brief sugar high, then a crash

Another way

So what’s the answer?

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Excerpted with permission from Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff; published by William Morrow


A version of this excerpt was first published in the June 2016 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

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