How self critical do you tend to be?
Are you gentle with yourself by nature—talking and taking care of yourself the way you do others? Or do you tend to be pretty hard on yourself?
If it’s the latter, you’re like many volunteers I know—and like I’ve been a lot of my life.
It makes a lot of sense. After all, we want to live intentional, meaningful lives that make an impact. That takes hard work, which means pushing ourselves hard sometimes. Right?
It’s true we’re all called to stretch ourselves to do what we’re here for in the world.
But we need to look (hard :)) at how we’re treating ourselves in the process—and if it’s really helping us be our best and bravest, or shrinking us instead.
Let yourself start here:
1. Don’t confuse being hard on yourself with working hard.
As volunteers, we tend to ask a lot of ourselves. We want badly to be our best selves, do our part, be positive forces in the world. We work hard, and it’s disappointing when we don’t get the results we want. And since we take responsibility for ourselves, it’s natural to ask what part we might have to play when things fall short.
But where I know things have broken down for me isn’t in asking, from a grounded place, what I’m learning when something doesn’t work out. And what I might want to do differently next time.
It’s in assuming that something not working means something’s wrong with me, full stop.
As a kid, I was consistently hard on myself after I struck out in softball games. I cried on the bench afterward, on the field, on the way home. This started when I was about 8 and went on till I stopped playing at 14.
My parents and other little girls on my team tried to soothe me, but it was hard for me to stop crying. Sometimes I’d even come home and bang my head on my mattress until I got too tired.
As I got older, the crying in public felt more embarrassing, and I wished I could control it better. But on the other hand, I remember distinctly thinking that I wasn’t happy with my performance. I was under no delusion I’d done well. And was glad anyone watching me cry could tell that.
In other words, after striking out, the most devastating thing would be if people didn’t realize I was someone who strove for more than strikeouts.
So being hard on myself was a way of showing others I was trying, that I really cared. And also showing them I knew I was capable of more than they’d just seen.
Early on, then, I got the idea that being hard on myself was a way of proving I was working hard. Proving to others, and also to myself. And that made being hard on myself even feel like a noble thing.
But the problem is it’s not noble. The continued scolding and abuse didn’t make me any better a person, and certainly didn’t make me strike out less. The opposite. It slowed me down. It made me more anxious every time I went to the plate. And it reduced me to a smaller version of myself.
Go ahead and gently investigate for yourself. Think of a time recently when you were hard on yourself. How, if at all, did the way you treated yourself help you move forward with wisdom and strength? How did it hold you back? Let yourself be honest.
In my case, I recognized I was working desperately hard, but in a tunnel vision kind of way—not a wise way. And it was creating a house of cards that could blow over at any time.
I needed a way to view the situation in a wider perspective. To see I was treating myself in a way that didn’t align with my larger beliefs around what helps us grow. And in a way I’d never treat anyone else.
And that brings us to:
2. Get outside of yourself—and deeper into your wisdom.
In my twenties, I had a therapist who suggested I keep a picture of myself as a child on my desk.
I chose one when I’m about 4, dirty blonde curls in my face, painting a picture intently. She still melts me if I look at it long enough. The photo was there to remind me who I was speaking to when I was so hard on myself. Why would I speak to myself in a way I’d never speak to her?
It helped. It helped lift me out of my full-on triggered state where I couldn’t process anything but how badly I felt I’d screwed up.
This worked because it was like speaking to another person. That got me outside myself, and also reconnected me with my wisdom—which is near impossible to access when we’re overwhelmed with shame.
Something else that helps me is remembering the divinity that I believe lives in me and all of us. And remembering that the unique gifts we’re each here to give are divine.
A few months ago, a phrase flashed through my mind that’s turned out to be very helpful to me. It was: When I tell myself what I have to give isn’t good enough, that’s like shitting on God.
(To be clear, I’m not talking about healthy, productive criticism that gives me a realistic assessment of where I am and helps me decide where I want to go next. I’m talking about the voice that says it’ll never be enough.)
Like the photo of me as a kid, remembering this phrase helps snaps me out of my dark place. I do not want to dishonor God or that little girl just trying to paint. I will not.
Both these things help me come into more groundedness, wisdom, and compassion. So does meditation, walking, and reading things that center me. I also feel a lot of solace and support from my ancestors, so sometimes I’ll imagine my late grandmothers just sitting and moving with me throughout a day in spirit form.
What works for you may be very different. The point is to connect with whatever it is that gets you outside of your ultra-self-critical space to a higher vantage point, back to more inner stillness and wisdom.
And depending on how triggered you feel, it’s sometimes best to just spread out here for a while. You don’t need to do anything. Just let yourself inhabit this place of larger truth. To feel it.
Then when the time is right, you can consider how you want to move forward. Which brings us to:
3. Focus on the process, not the outcome.
Growing up, striking out felt completely black and white to me. If I struck out, I was devastated. If I got on base, I was okay. There wasn’t much in between.
As an 8-year-old, it may have been a tall order to bring more subtlety to my game and see past the outcome (striking out) to other potential progress (more fouls than last time, maybe).
Now at 38, I’ve come a long way. But the inner predator still pops up sometimes when I’m working toward something that doesn’t seem to be coming. He demands to know what’s wrong with me. At this point, I recognize he usually gets to me when I’m grasping the outcome I want too tightly and forgetting to focus on the process.
Lanny Bassham is an Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting who developed a Mental Management System he uses as a performance coach. He recommends setting goals around process (which we can control) rather than outcome (which we can’t) as much as possible.
He explains that when we’re fixed on the outcome of something, we can’t simultaneously be focused on the process. This leads us to over-try—and get out of the zone we create when we’re really in our process.
And how do we find this zone?
Start by mentally rehearsing what a positive training process looks like for you (in any area of your life), teaches Bassham—feeling how you want to feel as you go along.
As you imagine the daily experience (not just the outcome) you want to have more, it imprints on us a greater possibility of it being “like us” to have this experience in real life. (Likewise, if we get stuck fearing a negative experience, we’re imprinting that, too, and are likely to have more of that.)
In short, we don’t necessarily change our habits through our results. But we do change them through the way we approach the process. Bassham’s excellent book, With Winning in Mind, goes step by step through how to set process-centered goals, in athletic and other goals.
Here’s an abbreviated version to start now, in the context of being self critical. Take a deep breath, ground down wherever you are, and ask yourself:
1. What’s one area where you’re particularly hard on yourself?
(e.g. Not telling people when you’re upset about something because you don’t want to create conflict. It makes you resentful, but you feel it’s your fault, since you didn’t speak up.)
2. What is it you want when it comes to that?
(e.g. To be able to express calmly, clearly, and compassionately how you truly feel when conflict arises.)
3. Imagine yourself doing that now. Really lean into it and feel how that feels. If you can imagine it, it’s possible for you.
4. Now consider: What process do you think would lead you there? What kinds of things do you practice each day that makes that possible for you? What kinds of things do you tell yourself?
Above all, be gentle with yourself. Being hard on ourselves is an old pattern and a deeply embedded one for a lot of us. A more positive process is a muscle we build over time.
But even a small change—chipping away at some of this hardness inside and meeting it with our own love—can have massive results. You can really do this. We’re all right here with you.
I hope this blog was a valuable read—but also hope you won’t stop there 🙂. We can have strong insights, but then easily forget them when we don’t act on them.What’s one action you want to take right now to be gentler and wiser with yourself? And, what are other ways you’ve learned that work for you to be less self critical? Please tell us about it in the comments. Writing it down makes it more real for you, and helps others know they’re not alone.
If you liked this blog, please also consider sharing it with others who might benefit. Finally, if you want more support moving forward as your best self, sign up for this free starter course, 5 Steps to a Fulfilling Life After Service, right here.
PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Botan