This New Year, I need to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking, train for a marathon, meditate every single day, read a novel a month, and quit spending money. Entirely. (The subtext: I’m not good enough the way that I am.)
Unrealistic goals, you say? You bet! But we engage in this unrealistic process at least annually, and some of us find that we have to be in continuous self-improvement mode to feel even marginally okay about ourselves.
I have been considering this question of self-improvement. It is a North American pastime, and weight-loss programs, gyms, and other businesses that cater to our sense of being not-okay tend to make a lot of money in January before the motivation flags.
I am interested in this not-okay-ness. Many of us have a continuous internal criticism process going on. When we are engaging in our self-improvement behaviour, perhaps the critical voice quiets, or maybe it changes tone. Maybe we feel a bit better for a little while, but usually the judgment shows up again, or perhaps in another way.
Imagine thinking about everyone the way that you think about yourself. Imagine what it would be like to view everyone as “not good enough” or in need of change. If you see your partner, your children, your co-workers as all needing to change (generally we need them to change to suit OUR expectations), you probably also see yourself in just as negative a light. In fact, I suspect that if you see other people in the light of negative judgment, your inner experience of yourself is probably powerfully negative. And it feels miserable and yucky to think ill of yourself and everyone else. It becomes so pervasive that even things that you might otherwise see as good and wholesome take on a negative tone (for example, a friend has success and you cannot be happy for her, but can only think of the reasons why she doesn’t deserve it).
I’ve heard people say that they are afraid of not being hard enough on themselves. They think that they might become dissolute, lazy, pointless, or some other scary thing if they are not continuously correcting and criticizing themselves. Even the idea of letting go of the internal critical voice is hard to think about because who would I be if I didn’t think all of these things about myself? The inner critic becomes so much a part of us that we cannot recognize that voice as someone else’s. We think that we are hard on ourselves because we DESERVE it. And we are hard on other people because they deserve it, and also because why should they get to be themselves if we can’t allow ourselves that luxury?
There is a way out of this, and it isn’t at the gym. Or it could be at the gym, but the way out actually begins with being willing to question your experience and your thoughts. What if you were actually wrong about your need to change? What if you were really okay just as you are, and that your internal litany of self-criticism is just a reflexive thinking pattern? Would anything else change in your life if you could flex around this issue?
Changing your thinking sounds easy. You just have to change your mind. But your mind has been practicing particular thought patterns for years. Shifting those pathways is not easy but it is simple. You just have to keep on doing it, over and over. Let’s look at specifics.
It is easiest to start with people other than yourself. So try this: think about a person in your life, perhaps a very annoying person. Notice how your mind generates a story about how annoying this person is, and the specific behaviors that annoy you. See how fast this happens! Notice pictures, words in your mind, whatever your mind generates, and then notice how your body reacts to this line of thinking. Don’t judge yourself, just notice! Now stop all of that internal stuff and begin to look inside your ideas about this person for something that you really appreciate, respect, or even envy. See if you can generate appreciation, respect, or even pleasure in yourself about this other person. Try to stay with this thought and the feeling that comes with it; notice what happens in your mind. You may generate other ideas that are about appreciation. You may want to shift back into negative judgment. Just notice and try to stay with what you appreciate, respect, or take pleasure in. Watch your thoughts and how your body responds.
What did you find out? Remember that you are finding out about YOU, not about the other person. You are finding out what happens to you in your thinking about the other person.
After you have practiced step 1 for awhile, you might notice that your everyday annoyance and judgment of other people is shifting. A practice that can help you to be less critical generally is to make a requirement for yourself that when you indulge in a critical thought about someone, you have to generate three items about that person that you appreciate. This will help to shift the balance of your thinking from negative criticism to a place where you are feeling more open and positive. Notice how your body reacts to your thinking. Remember, for every one criticism, THREE appreciations.
If you have friends who like to engage in offering judgment and criticism of other people as group activity, notice how this feels to you. Notice how you feel when you join in, and how you feel if you just observe without judging your friends (or their target). Watch your body and your mind as these interactions go on.
At some point, you might try the experiment of offering an appreciation about the target within your group. Do this as an experiment to notice how it feels to you to actually go against the group-think, and to see how the other people in the group respond to you. Can you tolerate feeling outside the group? Does the open feeling that comes from appreciation help you to manage any anxiety that comes from stepping outside of the norms of your group?
If you have been doing the steps, you probably have begun softening your stance toward yourself without even noticing. Check it out; when you notice that you are criticizing yourself, see how that feels. Then see if it is possible to make a shift to identify something that you actually appreciate about yourself. For example, I might have spent more money than I planned but I do a good job of providing for my family. Or maybe I haven’t quit drinking yet, but I have become honest with my partner about it. You cannot lie to yourself about how well you are doing, because your critic will be on alert for that. (Curious, isn’t it, how we can lie to ourselves about how BAD we are but we cannot lie to ourselves about our acceptable qualities. That’s a topic for another post.)
If you can agree that self-respect is important you might borrow this strategy from the Emotional Freedom Technique . Agree about the thing that needs to change, but take the stance that you can still appreciate yourself. Here are some words to use: “Even though I have twenty pounds to lose, I still appreciate and respect myself.”
“Even though I …..whatever your critic claims…….I appreciate and respect myself.”
If you want to be radical about this, you can even say something like “I totally love and appreciate myself.”
Now you can assess what you might want to change about yourself. But you can make that assessment from a platform of self-respect and appreciation for who you really are, and not from a place of shame and humiliation that makes you criticize yourself. Maybe you want to explore your creativity more. Maybe you want to try a new sport, or dance more. Maybe you want to learn a new language, or to write code, or to take care of lost animals. Whatever it is you want to change, let it be about becoming more yourself in the world, and not about conforming to the image of a critical, judgmental part of the self.
In feeling the openness of living in appreciation rather than judgment, you can enjoy more and take more pleasure in your life. We all know that life has challenges, struggles, pain and sorrow. These are part of being human. Those struggles don’t preclude us from pleasure and enjoyment. We can have all of that, and more.