Give a man a fish and he’ll feed himself for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll feed himself forever. Or so the saying goes. It’s probably true, but who really knows? Fish can be damned smart. Particularly the ones that have been caught before.
Here’s a saying which I know is absolutely true:
Give someone five minutes with nothing to do but think and they’ll find a way to beat themselves up about something, no matter how small or trivial.
It’s a sentence or thought that starts with the words If only I hadn’t …
… said that, done the other, been mean about Rachel’s new hairstyle, bought that dress, maxed out my credit card, asked out the guy/girl in the Costa queue on an irrational impulse, inhaled an entire packet of Hobnobs in a single sitting, been quite so unkind to my mother, jumped to that conclusion about Dawn Smith when we were ten, poked the cat with a stick, got back with her / him for the 30th time, thought bad things about that woman before I knew she had cancer, turned down that job promotion, frittered away my teens … the list is endlessly long.
More than that, it’s unfailingly and ineffably pointless and if I could only follow one spiritual or self-care practice for the rest of my life it would be to never beat myself up about things ever again. Because apart from being a long and pointless process, it’s also a process that is inarguably toxic.
Living in perpetual self-flagellation is like driving through life with the handbrake on.
But regrets are good, right? It shows I’m human, for God’s sake! That I have empathy and sympathy and humility – all that good stuff that makes people realise I’m not the self-centred narcissist I think I am.
And guilt! Oh, God yes – lots and lots of that. After all, why should the good Catholics have the monopoly on guilt? There’s plenty for everyone – we just need to dwell on stuff awhile and soon enough it’ll engulf us and make us feel … what? Better? More worthy? More human? More deserving?
No. It does none of these things. Self-flagellation – the supreme art of giving yourself a hard time about stuff you can’t change – not only kills your relationship with yourself, it’s the best possible way there is to keep yourself stuck in the horrible decisions and emotions of the past. And that, in turn, keeps you locked into the very thing it is that you want to change.
Your relationship with yourself is the absolute basis of a good life. You’re stuck with being you, so if you’re going to learn to love the person you are, the minimum you need to do is to make peace with yourself.
And if you can’t do that for yourself – and there are a lot of people who can’t – then accept the help of others to help you find that path. It’s all very well me saying you just need to stop doing whatever it is that makes you berate yourself, but if it were that easy you’d probably have stopped already. However it is important to set the intention no matter how you do it.
In the end, sometimes we need a bit of a helping hand to see ourselves for who we really are rather than who we think we are. When you’re ready to start down that road, people like me are here to guide and help you.
A happy and fulfilled life comes from being your own best friend and celebrating the good things you represent. The odds are they’ll significantly outweigh the bad things – but we seem to be world masters in obsessing about the imperfections.
So, stop. Have your own back. Be there for yourself because when all’s said and done, you’re the only person out there you can reply on to be that guy or girl.
So why do we behave in such an obviously destructive way, replaying the car crashes of our emotional past with no apparent resolution? The reason is that guilt seeks punishment and the cycle goes something like this:
1. Feel bad about yourself
2. Binge eat a packet of biscuits, feel terribly guilty about it, swear off them, then beat yourself up harshly.
3. Eat another packet of biscuits in a desperate attempt to feel better after giving yourself the beating
4. Decide the biscuits aren’t working and open a bottle of wine
5. Indulge in a 40-minute compare and despair binge on Instagram
6. Repeat whatever it was that made you feel bad in the first place.
7. Rinse and repeat.
The other thing is that this self-torture is more effective at chewing up your life-force, vitality and self-worth than a year on crystal meth. So, if that’s the vibe you’re going for, jog on. But if, like most of us, it’s absolutely not how you want to spend your life, then it’s imperative to make a deal with yourself to find a way to stop doing it.
As Jeff Brown so beautifully puts it, when dealing with your issues: eat your stuff, or it will eat you.
Stopping beating yourself up is the one thing that will improve the quality of your life instantly. As in this very second. And, quite unlike crystal meth, it’s free. The high of liking or even loving who you are is better, too.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t all look for self-improvement, success and growth – that’s an essential part of the human experience. And it’s not realistic or even desirable to stop wanting more from your life, because that’s also part of the human condition.
But beating yourself up for where you are just because you’re not yet in the place you want to be will keep you exactly where you are. Because the other truth about self-flagellation is that what we resist persists.
Telling ourselves we’re somehow wrong, deficient, ‘less than’ or defective because we aren’t where someone else has reached is the most powerful thing we can do to shame ourselves and keep us stuck exactly where we are.
Yes, we need to be true to our own values and standards and it’s right and healthy to want to be better at those things and to want not to repeat some of our mistakes – just as long as we’re not punishing ourselves when we fall short.
If you have experienced trauma in childhood, however large or small, the negative inner critic – aka The Superego – will be especially prevalent in your life. The role of the superego is to protect you, but the way it executes that task can feel especially malevolent at times. It’s the voice of fear and, as I often explain to my clients, fear is the strongest emotion we can experience.
The problem is it can often get translated as truth and I’ve found through my own work with clients that the white noise of persistent self-criticism diminishes once trauma and inner child work has been performed.
If our friends behaved like our superego, they wouldn’t be friends for long. Yet many of us tolerate this constant belittling of ourselves without complaint. Why would we treat ourselves in ways we would never tolerate from someone else? The answer is almost certainly that we’ve been listening to what a friend describes as the committee in the head for so long that we think what it has to say must be true.
But it’s possible to say not today thanks and take a different path that starves the superego of its power over us. If you cannot do that consciously, then do the therapy work to negotiate with it and it will set you free in a way you could never imagine.
When you point blank refuse to beat yourself up really wonderful things start to happen. You naturally set better boundaries; you allow yourself to do more things and you get more done; you feel bolder and freer and you care much, much less about what others might be thinking of you.
More than that, it also ‘unsticks’ you, so whatever you are stuck in – bad job, bad relationship, weight you can’t lose, habits you can’t shake – you can begin to wriggle free from.
Living a life that’s the stuff of a Kafkaesque doom narrative is no fun, but liberating yourself by not beating yourself up allows you to live in reality much more comfortably and means you are more grounded and less likely to go off on those oftentime disastrous flights of fantasy.
There are a trillion goals we can have and so many things we can look at in ourselves and want to improve, but the reality is that you only need one goal to transform your life in the most radical and remarkable way possible: to be really, really comfortable in your own skin.
Being the person who is really, truly, wonderfully okay with all of who they are is hands down the most magnetic and attractive quality in the world.
Let me put it a different way. If beating yourself up is like driving through life with the handbrake on, choosing to like who you are is the sheer joy of releasing it and putting your foot down. And after everything that’s gone before, isn’t it about time you floored your life?