Why You Can’t Stop Beating Yourself Up
Maybe this doesn’t happen to you. Maybe, on the day when you discover you’ve screwed up your boss’s flight reservations, which is the same day you’re late to work because you’ve misplaced your keys, so in your hurry you’ve spilled coffee all over your white shirt, you shrug it off. You realize you’re human. You fix the flights, apologize if needed, dab away the stains, put the keys on the right hook, and get on with life.
If that’s you, then you are a highly effective and evolved individual, or else you are blissfully insensitive. Either way, I wish I were more like you.
But if that’s not you, if a string of goof-ups, or even one, can send you into a funk of self-blame, I feel you. And here’s the thing: I’m sure that like me, you know better.
You are fully conscious of the fact that chipping away at your own self-confidence is not going to improve the situation, and it’s not going to make you a better person. Quite the reverse, in fact. The kind of recrimination you heap on your own head leads nowhere but to dispiriting psychic paralysis — and that’s if you manage to stop the toxic mantras before you end up officially depressed. You know this because you’ve been there.
So, my fellow wearer of an invisible hair shirt, why do we persist in this? Why do we talk to ourselves in ways we would never, ever, address a loved one or, really, anybody, unless maybe they’ve just cut us off in traffic? What’s up with the self-flagellation?
I’m not talking about taking responsibility for your actions, which is the necessary and adult thing to do. I’m talking about withering, habitual self-blame. If, like me, you tend to indulge in this misery when you’ve made a woops, I suggest it’s time we get over it.
After all, this is not a characteristic you were born with. If it were, you’d never have summoned the courage to crawl, let alone walk. It’s learned behavior, a habit that was established when you were very young and your personality was exquisitely receptive and malleable. It’s become like a script that runs constantly somewhere beneath the notice of your prefrontal cortex, reacting to your mistakes by sending you frantic error messages that you can’t seem to shut off.
I know how it feels, but your brain isn’t actually trying to sabotage you. It thinks it’s protecting you. It learned this strategy way before you were conscious enough to examine its reasoning. So let’s do that now. Here are the underlying assumptions:
All Errors Are Fatal
This belief uses the faulty logic of fear. Its syllogism goes:
- Mistakes are bad.
- You made a mistake.
- You are bad.
Maybe you were spoken to harshly when you broke something or wet the bed as a kid, or maybe you were a highly sensitive little snookums, or Mommy or Daddy were at the end of their tether. All that matters now is that you recognize this isn’t something you would tell a child, including your inner child.
Punishment Makes You Better
Somewhere along the line you’ve absorbed the stubborn idea that the universe requires you to balance your misdeeds — however accidental — with at least as much pain. This belief persists despite all evidence to the contrary, and is why we have a prison system that takes in the poor, inadequately educated, often mentally ill and turns them into hardened criminals. I assume and fervently hope this is not a principle you’d apply to your own kids.
Your Best Defense Is To Attack Yourself
Here we have the magical belief that if you can just berate yourself swiftly enough and harshly enough, you may be able to literally beat others to the punch. And you’ll make sure that, no matter how bad someone else might make you feel about what you’ve done, you’ve already made yourself feel worse. So you’re safe.
You’ll Make Damn Sure You Never Do This Again
Let me be clear: it is indeed a good thing to learn from your mistakes. And if you’ve truly done wrong, if you’ve behaved dishonestly or hatefully, if you’ve hurt someone or damaged a relationship, then some unshrinking self-examination is called for. You should make reparations if you can. You should not do it again.
But here I’m talking not about true misdeeds, but mistakes. Stupid human stuff. Forgetting a birthday, hitting “send” on the wrong email, losing a piece of jewelry. Painful for sure, but not something you set out to do. And not really something you can reasonably promise to never do again, because you are, indeed, only human.
Here’s the real deal:
Your Ego Is The Engine That Powers The Blame Train
Just in case you have some last, lurking attachment to haranguing yourself, let’s call it what it is: self-absorption. Somebody smart, whose name I forget, observed, “To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves.” The obverse is also true: to belittle ourselves with more ferocity than we would ever unleash on another person means we expect ourselves to be better than everybody else.
Which is really not very nice of us, is it?
So how about we both knock it off?