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Why beating yourself up gets you nowhere

Many of us have the tendency to beat ourselves up when things are not as we would like them to be. We berate, belittle, criticize and make fun of ourselves – for things we did, things we did not do, our thoughts, our feelings, anything really. In times of challenges, like now with the Corona virus, this strategy becomes even more detrimental for our mental (and physical) wellbeing.

Research has shown that unkindness to self is in fact, one of the most effective ways to create anxiety, depression and burn-out.

So why is such an ineffective strategy so common? Well, it is deeply rooted in evolution. The evolutionary reasons for unkindness to self have to do with our very basic need to protect ourselves and feel safe.

Safety in groups

As humans our survival through the millennia has depended on us being physically safe and this was best achieved when we were part of, and feeling safe in, a group. Back in the day, our actual survival depended on the group’s ability to find enough food and drink, and provide protection and shelter, so it was important to be part of a group. Today, while our direct survival may depend less on being part of a group, our emotional and physical wellbeing still is dependent on how much connection we have with others. We have developed different ways to ensure we are accepted and feel safe in groups, and unkindness to self is one of those strategies.

So how does that work? To understand the mechanism, we first have to explain a little more about how we are unkind to ourselves. Basically, when we are unkind to ourselves there are two main patterns of thoughts that arise:

  1. Feeling better than others
  2. Being very self-critical

The need to feel better than others

The first pattern of thought – the need to feel better than others- is geared towards sensing your position in a group (family, colleagues, friends, team mates). When we are in this thought pattern, our self-critical thoughts are often linked to comparison to others.

We often compare ourselves to others in an attempt to feel better about ourselves, as a strategy to ensure that our group sees us as successful.

We have a natural tendency to look for flaws in others and regularly judge ourselves ‘better’ than others in things we find important (research has shown that 90% of us think we are better drivers than most!).

This constant comparison, and the danger that our self-esteem relies too heavily on our own assessment in how we measure up, can lead us to overly worry about what other people think. We can get stuck in comparison, and come to the conclusion that in fact, we do not measure up or our lives do not measure up to those of others. Not surprisingly, this actually makes us feel worse about ourselves. There is a danger that when we feel that we are not measuring up we push ourselves to meet our own set goals – I should be thinner, prettier, richer, have a better family, be smarter than others. This striving for our own perception of perfection makes it very hard for us to deal with the inevitable truth that we are not ‘the perfect self’ that we feel we need to be in order to be safe in a group. This striving for ‘the perfect self’ can be at the root of burn-out, depression and anxiety.

Self-Criticism

There is a related, but distinct second pattern of self-critical thoughts – this pattern of thoughts has a tendency to put one oneself at the centre, for example: I cannot do this, I am not smart/pretty/young/whatever, I am so stupid.

The main group safety strategy at play here is to put ourselves down before others do so. In groups, this means you might be able to elicit sympathy and care. You might not be at the top of the food chain, but your position lower down is secured and safe. In a way, you are already putting yourself in a lower position than others, so that, when others see your shortcomings, they cannot put you there. What you are really doing, if this is your strategy, is constantly telling yourself that you are no good. This plays havoc with our self-esteem and healthy emotional regulation systems, which can lead to depression, anxiety and social withdrawal. If you have time, have a look at this talk by Kirstin Neff, a renowned pioneer and researcher of self-compassion.

How to deal with all this?

We can adopt a strategy to deal with our self-critical thoughts and our tendency to comparison so that it does not cause havoc with our emotional wellbeing. As described above, the fact that we do this is quite natural. In fact, your mind is just trying to help you feel and be safe. So, the first step is to not be critical of being self-critical. If you are human, you will have self-critical and comparison thoughts and feelings. You can start training being not critical with this 5 minute meditation.

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Meditation

5 Minute judgement Meditation

Start meditation

Meditation

5 Minute judgement Meditation

Secondly, you can start to recognize when comparison or self-criticism is happening. This you can do by training mindfulness and moment-to-moment awareness. With this recognition, you can start naming it, and letting it be. Not reacting out of it nor believing what the thoughts are telling you. Here is a thought that says I am not good enough. Ok. I see it, I feel it, I am letting it be.

As a third step you can bring compassion to yourself and accept that there might not be such a thing as ‘the perfect self’, but that you are doing the best you can. Especially seeing and feeling when things are difficult, when you are not ‘the perfect self’ that you have created in your head, being kind and accepting of that is important. Research has repeatedly shown that being compassionate towards ourselves when things are hard leads to more emotional wellbeing and greater resilience in life. Try this 5-minute meditation to experience what this feels like.

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Meditation

Kindness to Self Meditation (5 min)

Start meditation

Meditation

Kindness to Self Meditation (5 min)

Lastly, you can try to challenge your self-critical thoughts, and gear your mind and attention more towards all the things that are good in your life. Challenging your thoughts, you can do by finding at least 2 or 3 alternative thoughts that describe the situation. So when your thoughts are telling you that you are not good enough, actively find 2 other possible explanations for whatever is going on. Furthermore, you can practice gratitude. You can do that every day by naming ten things that you are grateful for in your life whenever you have a moment to spare (waiting in traffic, making coffee or tea, standing in line).

Working skilfully with self-criticism will allow you to experience that there is another way that you can be and feel safe, and this safety is one that you can find within yourself.

Kindness to self is not an excuse, nor is it selfish

Important to note is that being kind to yourself is not an excuse behave in a way that does harm to others. Nor is it always putting your needs ahead of others. Neither is it an excuse to always sit on the couch and never hit the gym again.

It is about being and behaving in a way that is in line with who you want to be. It’s about achieving what you want to achieve, but in a way that is constructive for you and those around you.

With the MindStrength programme you will practice the above and much more. You will find that kindness to self is an important component of the ‘the power of kindness’ theme. In combination with the other three themes you will be able to train your mind to see and understand your habitual patterns (are you a self-criticiser, or do you compare yourself with others? Or both?) step out of them and train your mind to more supportive mind-modes that will help you feel happier and thrive.