By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
“I shouldn’t have said that.” “I shouldn’t have done that.” “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” These are common phrases I hear from clients in my counseling practice. So many people are so hard on themselves so much of the time, believing that self-criticism will help them attain their goals. After all, many of us have all been raised with a “no pain, no gain” attitude. Our culture expects so much of us and requires us to live at such an unnaturally fast pace that it has caused an epidemic of perfectionistic, stressed out, medicated people. Who could possibly keep up with the unrealistic expectations of our culture without having it take a toll on our mental or physical health?
Many of my clients think that their self-berating will get them in line or keep them in line. I often ask (rhetorically of course) how that is working out for them, knowing full well that if it was working, they would probably not be sitting in my office! Many people fear that if they stopped beating themselves up or being really hard on themselves that they would never get anything done. Is self-hate really an effective motivator? Can’t we motivate ourselves with kindness, passion or encouragement?
I work with people in all walks of life — nurses, doctors, personal trainers, teachers, etc. — and I often ask them if they speak to their patients, clients or students the way they speak to themselves. They wouldn’t dare. They would likely be fired if they did, not to mention that they often view others with such different standards and with so much more compassion than they do themselves. Why do so many of us feel compassion and kindness toward others but then turn inward with a whip of self-criticism and perfectionism?
Many of us were raised with the belief that if we were kind to ourselves and liked or even loved ourselves, we would be conceited. But is that true? Can we upgrade the program on that one and all agree that self-care and kindness is not necessarily self-grandiosity and entitlement?
When someone lives with the internal program of “shoulding” or self-criticism and perfectionism, what usually ends up happening is that they are either very anxious about getting things done and getting them done perfectly (a thankless, never-ending job since none of us is perfect!) or they end up burning out or rebelling and are unable to get things done at all. This often leads to feeling depressed because they can’t keep up with their self-imposed rules, regulations and expectations.
So where does all this “shoulding” leave us? For many the answer is depressed and anxious. For millions it leads to taking meds to control their anxiety instead of changing the thinking patterns that cause the anxiety in the first place. So many people “should” on themselves regularly with high, unrealistic expectations. They are very driven, perfectionistic, achievement-oriented and outer goal-focused. I call this being a human doing rather than a human being.
Others fall into the opposite extreme of the spectrum and find it hard to get much of anything done. They struggle with procrastination and then beat themselves up about it. They struggle with depression and feel badly because they can’t get themselves to do what they set out to do.
Then there are those who bounce back and forth between shoulding and rebelling (anxiety and depression). They may also “should” on themselves but then rebel and can’t seem to get themselves motivated. I used to be a “bouncer.” I was either gung ho on some new diet or completely blowing it off and bingeing. I was either totally into some new Jane Fonda workout or I couldn’t get myself off the couch. I was swearing off alcohol or all-out partying. (Not a big fan of moderation, you might say!)
So, if listening to your harsh mind messages is one choice and rebelling and feeling badly about yourself is the other, you may not realize there is a door number three. Door number three is following your heart. It’s making your choices out of love and kindness and what feels the most right to you, rather than making your choices because of a self-imposed whip or rebelling from the beating and going on strike.
I have heard it said that the longest 12 inches is from the head to the heart. The heart is a loving voice. It’s our intuition, the part of us that is compassionate and kind. But it’s hard to hear that voice when it is being drowned out by the megaphone of the mind. A kind voice is in there though — we all have it.
We were not born shoulding on ourselves. We learned every internal rule we have. And fortunately, we can unlearn them. We can learn to delete the harsh messages in our mind in the same way we can delete a virus from our computer. And we can upload new, kinder messages. We can get things done from a place of moderation and sanity. We can rest in a place of peace, relaxation and self-worth. So see if you can take a few moments now and then and ask your heart rather than your head: What feels right for you? I promise you will still get things done. It just won’t be from an anxious place of trying to prove you are worthy or a depressed place of thinking you aren’t.