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A Case for Self-Compassion: Why Beating Yourself Up is a Waste of Energy

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

If you’ve internally rolled your eyes when someone said, “you did your best”, “no one’s perfect”, “it’s okay, you can always try again”, after you’ve made a mistake or not performed as well as you expected, then this article is for you.


For most people, they tend to be their own harshest critics. Their self-talk is filled with “shoulds”. “I should have done better, I should be able to achieve that, I shouldn’t have made that mistake”. These people might also compare themselves to others, thinking that others are more capable than they are, harder working, or better in any number of ways.


Mistakes are a normal part of human life. No one is perfect and usually we don’t expect others to be. But why do we tend to put these unrealistic, high expectations on ourselves, and then proceed to beat ourselves up if we don’t reach these ideals?


So why do we do it?


Growing up, how many times did you get told that you had to be more productive, thinner, faster etc. (the list goes on!), than you already were?


Most people are bombarded with these from their parents, school, media, and now the internet. These regular messages that we are not enough can form the root of our self-criticism. Repetitive messaging from different sources, in different formats, has conditioned us to believe that we can only be happy/worthy/capable if we meet certain criteria. Anything less is deemed, “not good enough”.


Over time, we may also become more sensitive to others’ perceptions of us and try to change how we act to fit in. We act based on what we think is expected of us to feel socially accepted and liked by others.


In some cultures, it is not normal to be praised or given compliments for doing the “right” thing. But mistakes are often quickly brought to light. This attentional bias for the incorrect, can make us sensitive to “wrongs” and dismissive of when we do well.


All of these messages can add up and gradually impact our mental health and wellbeing.



A waste of time and energy


Imagine you’re hiking up a mountain. This process, in and of itself, requires time and energy. You will get tired, and you will come across obstacles. Now let’s add the extra challenge of dealing with a bully that follows you for the entire hike. They put you down, yell at you, and even push you over. If you’ve stumbled and fallen, they kick you while you’re down. As you can see, this will make the hike painful, exhausting, and disheartening.

Likewise, when we are going through life, encountering a new challenge, it will be time consuming, and energy draining enough, without the critical self-talk that keeps us down for longer when we inevitably hit an obstacle.

We want to learn not to become our own obstacle.


Hiking up a mountain

A more efficient use of our energy and time.


So, what’s the alternative?


Well, there’s two main ones. The first is more “positive”. So in stark contrast to the bully, you have an ally/friend with you. They encourage you along the hike, make it fun, and lend a hand when things are getting tough. You get through the hike in a relatively straightforward fashion and are even able to enjoy the view along the way.


This approach translates to self-compassion. We’ll cover how to do that in the next section.


The more realistic approach for serial self-critics, is to be neutral. When we go on the hike, there’s no bully or ally with us. When we fall over, we just lay there for a bit, not having anyone berate us or help us up. Eventually, when we’re ready, we get up all on our own. We don’t need to exert any extra energy. We just go with the natural progression of things. Being neutral is the bridge to self-compassion.



Hiking through a forest

How to build our self-compassion?


Now for the real challenge. To unlearn the old, conditioned reflex of putting ourselves down, and relearn a new way of reflecting.


Self-compassion can come in two forms. Being kind to yourself, like you would a friend. Or just being less mean. Let me explain...


If a friend made a mistake, would you speak to them the way you speak to yourself? Would you be equally as harsh? Go on about it for as long?

Probably not. That’s why they are still your friend. If we were as cruel to others, as we are to ourselves, others would quickly distance themselves from us.

So, what would you say instead? You would probably reassure your friend, that “mistakes are normal, everyone makes mistakes”. “Most of the time you get it right. One mistake doesn’t define you”. “You can figure it out”. If you are nodding along to the logic, great, but if it’s missing the mark emotionally, then wait up. The neutral approach might be more believable to your self-critic.

Basically, it looks like we’re ‘less mean’ to ourselves. So rather than a 100% shut down that leaves us incapacitated, our self-talk presents in a less negative way. Rather than saying, “you idiot, how could you make that mistake?”, a neutral thought could be, “I’m not the smartest, so I will make mistakes sometimes. I will try to do better next time”. As you can see, we’re not seeing rainbows and sunshine by any means. But being more neutral, and less negative, is progress in its own right. Remember, we don’t have to be ‘perfect’ in this process.



Relaxing after a hike

Conclusion


There are many reasons why we can become our own harshest critics – from parental messages, media advertisements, and social comparisons. Although automatic and ingrained for some people, self-criticism is an inefficient use of our time and energy. We can learn to reinvest this time and energy into being self-compassionate or even just neutral (or less mean) towards ourselves.

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