The gift of self-criticism

"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."

As someone who tends toward perfectionism, I've heard that message a lot. And I don't like it.

For one, it feels shaming and judgmental. Who is anyone else to say how I should or shouldn't relate to myself?

Even more than that, though, I think it is bad life advice. Because sometimes I really mess up! And sometimes self-criticism is exactly what is called for.

If I think I'm not supposed to be hard on myself, I'll be afraid to even look at those areas of life where I may not be doing a good job. I won't want anyone else to point them out either, so I'll be hyper-defensive. I'll see myself as weak and fragile. And any problems I'm creating will just get worse.

I know this because I've seen it play out in my life, and it's something I want to change. 

I want to remember that it is okay to be hard on myself, that self-criticism is not the same as self-hatred, and that being honest with myself about the ways I mess up can be a huge gift.

To that end, here are some reminders that I wrote for myself earlier this week, which I share in case they resonate with you, too:

You have permission to be angry and disgusted with yourself for choices you make out of fear and laziness. You have permission to feel ashamed for living irresponsibly and ignoring your impact on others. You have permission to feel regret for the ways you've betrayed your values and blamed others for your unhappiness. You have permission to hate being human.

You also have permission to offer yourself love. You have permission to forgive. You have permission to let all these feelings go. You have permission to re-commit to your values, to set new goals, to try something new. You have permission to ask for help. You have permission to change. You have permission to live.

Have a wonderful week!

What are you thinking?

While driving the other day, I noticed that the top of me was very hot in the sun, but my feet were cold from having just walked in the snow.

It would be awfully nice if I could tell the car to blow warm air onto my feet and cool air onto my face, I thought. That would feel so good! Just thinking about it made me smile and appreciate how wonderful comfort is.

And then came another line of thought: Oh come on! There are people who don't even have cars. Can you really not handle a little physical discomfort? Instantly the joy was replaced with guilt. Guilt for wanting something more than I have, for wanting something that most other people will probably never have. I started feeling tense, and a little disgusted.

Wait a minute, countered the first line of thought. I never said I couldn't handle discomfort, or that I wanted my own comfort at the expense of anyone else's. I was just appreciating how nice it would be to have relief. Is there really anything wrong with that? Am I supposed to want to be uncomfortable? The guilt subsided. And I took off my coat.

I share this because it's a great example of how much our happiness is shaped by our thoughts, and how quickly our sense of well-being can change based on those thoughts: Doing things to increase joy feels good; doing things to avoid pain feels bad. Appreciation feels good; guilt feels bad. Wishing happiness for all people feels good; focusing only on ourselves feels bad.

The objective situation can stay exactly the same, but the meaning we give to it really matters.

Which areas of your life feel good right now, and which ones don't?

What thoughts are you thinking that reinforce those feelings?

What happens when you focus on different thoughts?

What do you want to do?

Don't do it because you have to; do it because you want to. And if you don't want to, don't do it.

I've met a lot of people who think that sounds like dangerous and irresponsible advice. If people actually followed it, they think, it would lead to mass laziness, ignorance, and social breakdown.

I disagree. 

I don't think people want to be lazy or ignorant. Nor do they want to sit idly by while their society breaks down. Those things don't actually feel good! 

Sometimes, though, it can be hard to know what our real desires are. What we want is mixed in with things we think we should want, that other people want, and that we've wanted in the past but don't actually serve us any more. Not to mention, powerful memories of those times when we did what we wanted and got punished, teased or rejected for it.

It's often a lot easier to just do what we're "supposed" to do and avoid asking what we want altogether.

That said, I find for myself that when I do take the time to sift through all the noise in my head, I am heartened by what I discover. What I really want to do isn't just good for me, but tends to be good for other people too.

I want to tell the truth with kindness and listen with humility. I want to take good care of my body and my environment. I want to follow through on my commitments. These things aren't always easy or comfortable, but they are aligned with my deepest values, and when I act on them, good things happen.

Following the "do what you want" advice is only a problem when I don't sit with the question long enough to find an action that would really feel good, and instead act on the first idea that pops into my head (e.g., yell at the person I'm mad at, eat yet another slice of cake, renege on a challenging commitment, etc.). In those cases I'm not actually doing what I want to do, but rather running on auto-pilot. It's not a problem of bad advice, but bad execution.

What do you think? Do you have a good sense of what you want to do? What would happen if you did those things more consistently?