When you do something foolish, or opposed to integrity, the first instinct is often to berate yourself: “You idiot!” or “You’re so selfish!” Self-criticism follows the lifelong experience of people being criticized and judged for their misbehavior. The rationale we’ve always heard is that if people are shamed or otherwise punished, they will stop doing the bad thing. And so, we scold ourselves in the hope that it will increase our self-discipline and willpower.
Self-criticism and guilt lower our motivation to improve ourselves and weaken our self-control.
The same is true with guilt. For generations people have been taught that to feel guilty when we do something wrong, so that we won’t do it again. And if a little guilt is good, more guilt is better. So, the repetitive self-condemnation is matched by a continuous flow of guilt. It’s all in the hope that it will help us be better and more successful people.
But oddly enough, research shows that self-criticism and excessive guilt have the opposite effect—they lower our motivation to improve ourselves and weaken our self-control. Feeling bad about yourself increases the likelihood that you will indulge in stress relieving activities, like the bad habits you’re are trying to avoid.
One study had a group of women getting a forgive-yourself message before being offered an array of treats designed to appeal to all kinds of tastes. They were invited to eat as much as they liked. A comparable group of women was also invited to freely indulge with no self-compassion message. The first group who received the message to be kind to themselves ate less than half of what the second group consumed (an average of 28 grams per person versus 70 grams).
Why? When we feel bad, we want to be soothed and will seek out the easiest comfort we can find. Castigating ourselves for watching pornography, for example, just adds another kind of stress on top of whatever sent us to the porn in the first place. The impulse center of the brain does not sort it all out; it just knows that the discomfort is reaching an intolerable level and it wants relief, even if it means doing something self-destructive that creates more stress.
And guilt is like pain in the body—it is an alarm system that indicates something is violating your conscience. It is supposed to be brief, like any alarm, and signal that we need a course correction. If it goes on too long, like a siren, then it becomes a new problem. When pain goes on too long, then it creates new health issues and complicates the original condition that prompted the pain. So it is with guilt. Guilt that does not turn off but just keeps screaming just adds to the discomfort that provoked the bad habit in the first place. Excessive guilt cripples our motivation and willpower, and creates more stress.
Be Your Own Best Friend
It may seem contradictory to be kind to yourself when you do something that violates your conscience or good sense, but look at it this way—how would you respond to your friend if they made a mistake? Wouldn’t you be supportive and help them avoid excessive guilt? We are often much more encouraging to, and forgiving of others, than we are to ourselves. We somehow see how others are much more than their errors, but we don’t extend that courtesy to ourselves.
Next time you hear your inner critic berating yourself, take a self compassion break:
Notice your own distress.
To practice compassion, you first have to observe that someone is suffering. In this case, you need to pay attention to yourself and notice when you are stressed or upset—not just the mistake you might have made, but also the distress you felt beforehand or as a result. This takes practice.
Remind yourself how universal mistakes are.
Acknowledge that miscalculating, making blunders and disappointing ourselves and others is an inevitable part of human life. Everyone fails at times; there’s no way to avoid it. We are born ignorant and unskilled, and virtually everything we know has to be learned, so we will make errors as we learn. You are not uniquely flawed—you are just another garden-variety flawed human being.
Give yourself support.
Do what you would do for a friend—give yourself what you need at that moment. Step back, breathe deeply, take a moment to rest, seek out encouragement. Hold your hand over your heart to comfort and strengthen yourself.
The next time you mess up, tell your inner critic to take a back seat, and let your self compassion take over. This will give you the power and motivation to correct your mistake and keep on improving.
If you are struggling with depression, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help. Our team is skilled at navigating these sensitive issues surrounding fear, depression, stress and anxiety. For more information, fill out this form or call 1-888-747-5592 to speak confidentially with a specialist today.
Written by John R. Williams, MA LMHC, Mental Health Therapist for The Center • A Place of HOPE. John seeks to not only empower individuals to find peace and fulfillment, but also establish warm and strong relationships. Located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, The Center creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.