The road to self-improvement can be littered with emotional landmines. As we grow and evolve, we often confront unpleasant evidence about the ways in which we sometimes fail ourselves. How we respond to ourselves in these moments makes all the difference.Think about the last time you recognized a personal shortcoming or mistake. Were you kind to yourself or did you beat yourself up?
I’ve noticed many of my clients are excessively self-punitive when they gain insight about their real and perceived imperfections. When acknowledging areas for self-growth, many of us double down on our suffering by beating ourselves up for past transgressions.
Be a Friend to Yourself, Not an Adversary
Self-compassion is often on short supply. We seldom offer ourselves the leniency we would likely offer a close friend who made the same mistake. Instead, we respond with fear, self-recrimination and anger.
It may be an automatic negative response that’s so deeply ingrained we don’t even realize it’s there. We may confuse the act of self-forgiveness as a sign of weakness. Or we may fear that making space for any self-compassion is self-indulgent and prevents us from holding ourselves accountable for our “bad behavior.”
However, these types of responses are self-defeating because they prevent us from relating to our mistakes with patience, empathy or compassion.
We certainly don’t want to ignore the problem or continue with the status quo. But if we don’t pause and allow room for self-forgiveness, we’re likely to increase reinforce our suffering (and unhealthy habits we want to change) by feeding a negative feedback loop with continued self-negativity.
Insight Without Insult
Let’s apply these ideas with a hypothetical situation. Suppose you have a personal goal of developing a healthy and sustainable long-term romantic relationship, but you continually self-sabotage your intimate relationships by growing distant and aloof when things get “too serious.”
Through self-inquiry (and maybe some good therapy), you realize that your childhood history of emotional abuse has subconsciously created a defense mechanism that pushes people away as a means to protect yourself from emotional pain (“You can’t hurt me if I don’t let you get too close”).
You begin to realize this defense mechanism is counterproductive because it prevents you being able to achieve your goal of having a long-term relationship.
With this insight comes a choice. You can berate yourself with insults and fear tactics that erode the possibility of future change or progress and tell yourself “I’m so stupid for always pushing people away. I’ll never have a healthy relationship if I keep acting this way.”
Alternatively, you can acknowledge the problem with compassion and hope and tell yourself “I’ve stayed emotionally distant in the past to feel safe, but it’s not worth it anymore. I resolve to let down my guard more to have a deeper connection with others.”
The former approach offers limited opportunity for self-improvement. It reinforces a sense of hopelessness and keeps one stuck in a bitter bog of the past. The latter approach allows space for empathy and gives breath to positive intentions about the future.
Choosing Hope Over Fear
The next time you unearth a personal flaw that you’d like to improve pause before you let your inner critic take over. Allow room for self-compassion. Offer acceptance and understanding to yourself as though you were talking to a close friend. Give yourself a chance for self-forgiveness. It will make your resolution towards self-improvement more nurturing and less punishing.
And when you notice you’ve fallen into old habits of self-recrimination, respond with self-compassion.
As Kristin Neff said, “You don't want to beat yourself up for beating yourself up in the vain hope that it will somehow make you stop beating yourself up. Just as hate can't conquer hate -- but only strengthens and reinforces it -- self-judgment can't stop self-judgment."