Most of us can remember quite a few mistakes we have made – ones we may (or may not) be able to laugh at from a safe distance. At the time, we may have felt ashamed or embarrassed. Some of us stay mad at ourselves, or wish we could go back in time. Why do some of us tend to beat ourselves up, while others seem to have more resilience to laugh at themselves, forgive themselves, pick themselves up and move on – and even try again. I am not talking about gross moral failures, violent crimes, or abusive behaviors, of course. People with no remorse for such things are simply psychopaths. I am talking about everyday mistakes. Just the I Messed Up variety of human behavior. For interpreters, the wrong word. Misstating something. Making a poor choice about whether and how to intervene. Mixing up our schedule. I should have known that! I shouldn’t have done that! I can’t believe I did that! Argh!
Many in my generation were raised to think we are not allowed to make mistakes. We must show remorse, and even shame, for the tiniest of transgressions, like spilling milk or not finishing all the food on our plate. Luckily, no matter how long it seemed to last, our childhoods end, and we become adults. We are free from all those voices trying to shape us into responsible adults with harsh talk! Unfortunately, though, there is this funny thing called internalizing. And for many adults, we have a really mean parent who lives in our head, our harshest critic, whose job seems to be to keep us in line by beating us up! How terrible this voice can be if we allow it to drone on in the background like elevator music. We don’t like it, of course, and it is irritating, but in the case of harsh self-talk, scientists are now finding it actually harms us. I am repeating in case your inner critic tells you they are “keeping you from failing” – that inner critic is harmful, not helpful.
Consider the image of a tight fist. It is held up as a threatening image, and it may even be shaken in your face as a warning. You feel particularly happy? Ha! Your inner meanie might like to wipe that smile off your face! You feel a bit weepy? Whiner! That inner critic is standing by to give you something to cry about! Nobody cares! So knock it off! What are you waiting for? A knuckle sandwich? But wait, there is a second image available. A soft, and open hand. Inviting. Curious. Welcoming. Trusting. Forgiving. One that cuts you some slack, and forgives you for your very human frailty. Ready not to slap or punch, but to hold you, lead you, and comfort you. A hand that believes in you, and is with you all along. A soft and open hand. You have two of them available, one on each arm. You don’t have to beat yourself up.
Don’t worry. Contrary to old beliefs, being kind to yourself won’t make you a lazy loser who never accomplishes anything. If you see yourself as a donkey who must be driven by threats and force, I have an eye-opener for you. You are also the driver of the donkey, and you can choose to stand down, lay a gentle hand upon your trusty beast of burden, and walk alongside for a while. Frolic in a meadow, drink in the stream. Weave a wreath of flowers for both your heads, and make them edible while you are at it. Relax. Laugh. Take some pressure off. It is not as dangerous as it feels. It is actually both safe and helpful. You can be kind to yourself, and the world will continue to spin along its axis. Trust me, I have tried this. The sun still rose the next day. And the world was renewed.
Our endless stream of self-criticism does a few things. It gets our hormones stuck in the fear cycle, seeing threats at every turn – feeling attacked from all sides. We get stuck on high alert, ready to run or fight. Easily startled and easily wounded. This critical voice that has lived in our heads as long as we can remember tells us over and over that we are failures, never good enough, not worthy. It tells us things are hopeless, and nothing can change for the good, and so we give up. Why should we try? We are only going to disappoint and embarrass ourselves, and let our loved ones down! Life is shit, and we are shit. Right? Well, according to our harsh inner critic, shaking a fist in our face and scolding us, yes. But just because they said it doesn’t make it true. You get to decide what you believe.
The good news is there are countless methods popping up through science-based research to combat these nasty voices that keep us in perpetual fear and distress. The easiest starting point is what we already do with toddlers. Give them something else to do that engages them. They change their focus, and so can you. You start ruminating about a sad circumstance? Ask yourself, is this helping you? Or harming you? If it is not helpful, stop that flow of thought as early as you notice it, especially the repetitive thoughts. Dance, garden, walk if you can. Read a book, cook something, make something with your hands. Call a friend, watch something, sit outside somewhere. Remember a time of pleasure and sit with it for a moment. Do arts and crafts. Knit a sock – make a simple greeting card. Organize your toothpicks. Mow the lawn. Anything to shake loose the thoughts.
Another way to still the inner critic is to take each thought and send it down the river. “I can’t do anything right!” can be written in your mind’s eye on a leaf and you can drop it into the river and watch the letters dissolve – watch as the leaf floats downstream and disappears around the bend. Not yours anymore! Goodbye! You can write the thought in your mind’s eye on paper and toss it into a mental fire. Watch the paper curl and the words go up in smoke. You can use any imagery that speaks to you, and you can of course go out into the world on the earthly plane and do these simple but powerful rituals. The point is to allow yourself to stop holding these critical and negative thoughts in such a tight fist, so you can open up and release them. And the good news is that the only permission you need is your own.