ways to stop beating yourself up

The original version of this article was first published in Psychology Today by Beverly D. Flaxington (Follow her on Twitter).

It’s great to have goals. Everyone needs to have things in life they strive to achieve. But is it necessary to constantly seek perfection in everything and then beat ourselves up for every misstep, or harshly self-criticize for each perceived underachievement? In healthy doses, self-critique can be helpful; through introspection, we find new ways to improve, better connect with others, and become more self-aware and humane. However, nothing is good when done or taken in excess, especially self-criticism. The repeated effects of this practice are detrimental; instead of helping you reach your goals or become a better version of yourself, self-criticism belittles you and erodes your peace of mind.

Do you enjoy it when other people judge and critique you? Does it encourage you to thrive or boost your self-confidence? Would you tolerate it if someone bullied your child or harassed your friend? Without a doubt, these are painful experiences. So why let the voices in your own head do the same to you? Why be your own bully? Because that is what you are if you incessantly self-criticize. No one knows you better than you do; no one knows what hurts you most, or how to attack your weaknesses in the meanest way possible.

We all sometimes doubt our abilities and wish to improve certain aspects of our personalities, attitudes, looks, or skills. It’s normal. However, constantly thinking of ourselves as worthless or not good enough is very different. Chronically treating ourselves with scorn and self-loathing can have consequences for our mental well-being, health, and relationships with loved ones.

Where does it come from?

Self-bullying arises from lack of compassion and kindness towards oneself. It is often engendered by painful childhood experiences that left a child with emotional scars. Children are more vulnerable and susceptible to negativity, so harsh criticism from parents, teachers, or peers can easily shatter their confidence, making them feel insecure or inadequate.

The desire to avoid others’ criticism in the future prods us to set criteria and standards for ourselves and conditions us to think that we need to be perfect and better than others in order to be loved and appreciated.

Perfectionism in its positive form can help us be more successful, but the negative or self-critical form actually impedes our progress. Negative self-talk and worrying about what others would say can zap the energy needed to become a better you. The results of five psychological studies demonstrated a consistent pattern of negative relationship between self-criticism and goal progress: Participants reported significantly less progress towards goals when they ranked higher in self-criticism. A positive relationship between self-oriented perfectionism and goal progress was also established: When self-criticism was controlled, participants reported significantly more goal progress.

Nobody is perfect, and even the best and brightest make mistakes. Instead of dwelling on failures, learn from them and move on. Silence the inner bully that persistently goads you to hurt and neglect yourself. Following are 5 practices to help you become the best you can be:

1. Focus more on positive self-talk.

Make a conscious effort to stop putting yourself down. To do that, you need to be more aware of your negative self-talk, those jabbing comments that you make to yourself. Compliment yourself on the things you do well; acknowledge your achievements, no matter how small. Make a list at the end of each day of 5 things you did well, that made you happy, or that you are proud of doing. Write these down and then read them to yourself (out loud if possible) before you go to bed. This won’t eliminate all negative thinking, but if you can tip the scales toward the positive, it will help keep your energy up.

2. Practice kindness towards yourself.

Being kind to yourself is just as important as being kind to others. Here’s a rule: Things that you would never say to your loved ones, either out of consideration or for the fear that you might offend them, should never be said to yourself, either. Imagine the amount of suffering it would cause others to hear these things from you, and realize that you are hurting yourself just as much. To quote from an old song by Helen Reddy:

“Would you take better care of yourself
Would you be kinder to yourself
Would you be more forgiving of your human imperfections
If you realized your best friend was yourself?”

3. Stop comparing yourself to others.

There is always going to be someone better than you at something. There will be those who are not as proficient as you, too. If you tend to compare yourself to someone who is the best at what they do, you may be playing a losing game. We play so many roles throughout our lives that it’s impossible to be better than the other 7 billion human beings at everything. Accept the fact that you are not perfect, and focus on being the best version of yourself.

4. Think of mistakes as learning opportunities.

Life is an unending process of self-improvement, and mistakes are unavoidable. It truly is a journey, and just like the longest road trip would involve some mistaken turns, so does your life. You have many great qualities and many areas for improvement. See those mistakes as opportunities: They show you what you need to work on to become the best you can be.

5. Be patient with yourself.

It takes time to correct the harmful habits that you have had for most of your life, especially deep-rooted ones like self-criticism. Considerable effort is required to change the way you think and to foster positive self-talk to get to the calmer, more reasonable you. Your life is a work in progress, so commit each day to doing something positive for you. Practice until being naturally good to yourself becomes more comfortable. Most important, don’t beat yourself up when you don’t do it as well as you “should.”

The original version of this article was first published in Psychology Today.

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