How to Stop Beating Yourself Up

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Are you your own worst enemy? Always criticizing yourself? Never satisfied with what you do? Always noticing what you do badly, but not what you do well?

And do you feel guilty about that?

If so, you are not alone. Researchers have found that around 80% of the average person's thoughts are negative, and many of those negative thoughts are self-criticisms.

For over a decade, Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of the University of Texas in Austin, has been researching into why we beat ourselves up and how to stop it. In her book Self-Compassion, she points out it's common for people to beat themselves up for beating themselves up! If you answered yes to the last of the questions above, then that’s a good indication you beat yourself for beating yourself, but even the first question could be used that way. If you believe you are your own worst enemy and that you shouldn’t be, that’s going to hurt.

How Can You Stop Beating Yourself Up?

Most people are more used to trying to build up self-esteem than they are to building self-compassion.

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Kristin Neff describes self-esteem as asking, "How am I different to others?" In particular, we try to look for how we are better than others, and try to be above average. But it stands to reason that most of us cannot be exceptional and above average most of the time, and so this is a very stressful way to live. For all the popularity of the self-esteem movement, it has not created a happier society in most Western countries. You only have to watch a few minutes of an episode of My Sweet Sixteen to see this. (For those of you who don’t know this series, in it kids who are about to turn sixteen get ready for their big day by demanding everyone fulfil their wishes and by fuming if they don’t get everything they want. They scowl and moan and assume that if the big day doesn’t go as they planned it will be a disaster. They show little or no compassion for themselves or anyone else.)

Instead of trying to be better than everyone else, Neff sees the key to happiness as learning in stopping judging and evaluating ourselves and in having compassion for ourselves. Instead of looking for differences from others, when we have self compassion we look for similarities. We see the common human experiences.

While it might seem obvious that having compassion for ourselves will lead to more happiness, if you are used to beating yourself up, it’s likely you have some resistance to stopping it. You might want to stop punishing yourself and yet you go on doing it. (I certainly did this, long after I realised it wasn't productive and still catch myself doing it from time to time.)

The reason we go on beating ourselves up after we have realize it's not molding us into perfect people is because we fear what will happen if we stop. So it helps to notice what we believe might happen if we stop criticizing ourselves.

Watch this wonderful video where Kristin Neff explains the importance of self-compassion

Why do you beat yourself up?

Try this short exercise:

Ask yourself, "What do I fear would happen if I stop criticizing myself or beating myself up?"

Don't deliberate too long or censor that comes into your head, instead just notice the first thoughts. (If need be just ask the question again.)

Was your answer something along this lines of: I'll be lazy, do nothing, be selfish, or a horrible person?

If so, you are not alone. These are the kinds of reason most people go on beating themselves up. We think that by doing so it will somehow make us better people. How's it working for you so far? Me neither.

What happens is that instead of making you a better person, beating yourself up makes you a miserable person. And miserable people are (a) not much fun to be around and (b) not much fun to be. Beating yourself up doesn't make you less likely to do things you dislike, but more likely.

Neff found that beating ourselves actually demotivates us because it increases stress hormones and ultimately leads to depression, whereas self-compassion helps us get into action because it lowers stress levels and so makes it easier for us feel able to do things. Even before I read Neff’s book, I had noticed this in myself. The more I try to motivate myself by imagining the dire consequences of not acting, the less I feel able to act, the more I treat myself kindly, the more capable I feel.

Why you began self-criticizing

We've looked at why you beat yourself up nowadays, but this isn't a habit we suddenly pick up in adulthood. We might think we beat ourselves because of our failures, but actually it's the other way round. Our failures are a result of years of self-flagellation.

As children, people who are hard on themselves had parents who were also hard on themselves.

Parents who are self-critical pass this on to children in two ways:

  1. They model self-criticism and children soon learn that this is what they are "supposed" to do.
  2. They are more likely to criticize their children, and children then see this criticism as true. Adults' unkind words to children are often misheard and become even more unkind. Any parent who has ever heard their pre-schooler reprimand their toys for misbehaving will know what I mean!


  • Exercise:
  • Try writing down some of the critical things your parents said to themselves, and you will soon notice how many of them you use too.
  • Try to do this without judging yourself or your parents, just noticing is enough for now, and sometimes it is all we need for change to start.

How to stop beating yourself up

So, are you now beginning to see that maybe it would be a good idea to stop the self-criticizing? And are you now wondering you do it?

There are many, many techniques or processes you can use to help stop beating on yourself. They all have a few things in common.

Acceptance

First you allow or accept your situation and your feelings. Notice that you feel sad, angry, ashamed apathetic or whatever. Allow that in this moment it is okay to feel the way you do.

I have written in this moment in bold and italics because it is so important. You can only ever do anything in this moment. Everything else is either a memory (the past) or a projection (the future.) We resist our feelings because we project that they will go on into the future and we see that as unacceptable. But we can only ever feel anything right now. Neff calls this mindfulness.

The amazing thing is that the moment we accept a feeling such as anger or sadness it starts to dissolve. This may sound the opposite of what you would expect, but think about it - to feel acceptance we simply can’t go on holding onto to anger or other negative feeling! You might feel anger again a second after feeling acceptance, and that’s okay. Just allow it again, and you will find it once again dissolves. A process I find very help for releasing emotions is the Sedona Method and my coach Liesbeth suggests thinking of this in a similar way to playing tennis. If you are used to playing with your right hand and switch to your left it takes a while for that to become familiar. If you are used to suppressing emotions and switch to allowing them it may take a while for that to become familiar too.

Going back to that statistic of most people’s thoughts being 80% negative - if yours become even 50% negative, that’s a huge change and you will start to feel hugely better. So it’s okay to make small changes, everything doesn’t need to happen overnight!

How we feel when we stop beating ourselves up
How we feel when we stop beating ourselves up | Source

Treat Yourself Kindly

Neff includes mindfulness in her three elements of self-compassion, but unlike me she doesn’t put it first. For her treating yourself kindly is the first step. I don’t think it matters which order you do these in, and most likely they actually happen simultaneously. If you notice that you feel angry and then punish yourself for that you are practicing neither mindfulness nor self-kindness; on the other hand you practice both when you notice and allow the feeling.

Neff sees treating yourself kindly as accepting that life doesn’t always work out how we’d hoped and being gentle on yourself when this happens. It’s okay to make mistakes; that’s part of being human. It’s okay feel frustrated, lonely, hurt, disappointed and other negative emotions that we are so often told to push away. That’s also part of being human.

Accepting Our Common Humanity

Recognizing that our mistakes and emotions are part of being human is actually what Neff sees as the third element of self-compassion. When we are hard on ourselves it often feels as if we are only ones who mess up, have outbursts or fail at our ambitions. We feel isolated and separate from everyone else. Neff also sees it as important to recognize that our thought patterns aren’t created in a vacuum: how we think and react is a result of cultural and family patterns as well as our own individual ways of being. Anyone who has ever been around small children can see this in the way they copy adults, often without understanding what they are doing.

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Attachment to Negative Thought Patterns

Positive affirmations are very fashionable these days and many people do find them helpful, but for me in my days of beating myself up they always felt false. I'd chant, "I am a positive, successful person," and instantly I'd think, "No, I'm not, my business failed, I have no money." (Or whatever crime I was currently frustrated about.)

The sense of fakeness just annoyed me further and left me feeling hopeless. Many other people feel the same way, and in Self-Compassion, Neff writes about her friend Rachel who almost always looked on the dark side of life and was rarely satisfied with her achievements. She tried affirmations and found them too much effort and way too phoney. (I can relate!) When Kristin Neff introduced Rachel to her way of practicing self-compassion however, Rachel found relief from her negative thinking patterns.

Rachel and I are not alone. Research done at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that positive affirmations could actually lower self-esteem in people who already had low self-esteem to begin with. The cause was the sense of fakeness described above, coupled with feelings of failure at not even being able to do the affirmations.

You could probably say that we were attached to our negative thought patterns, and you would probably be right. One reason people hold onto these patterns and continue to beat themselves up is because they don't realise the beliefs are just beliefs. They seem true.

For example, let's say you had to do a presentation at work or school. You were nervous beforehand and forgot some stuff. Then someone asked you to repeat what you'd said because they didn't hear it. So now, the presentation is over and you think, "I messed it up. I always do. I'm useless and stupid and will never get promotion/ good grades."

While this all feels true to you, notice how none of your self talk is fact. Even, "I messed up," is a judgment, not something that actually happens. If instead you focus on facts, it is easier to feel calm.

Coincidentally, in the middle of writing this, I got a call from young friend who had just done a presentation in class. When I asked how it went she said, "I messed up. The others said it went well, but I think I messed up."

Knowing my friend's tendency to be hard on herself I said that perhaps her fellow students were right and it went better than she thought. I asked what happened.

"I stuttered and I got my notes in the wrong order.”

I asked if she’d managed to sort the notes out. She said yes. I asked if she would have thought someone else had messed up if they had done what she did. She said no. She still wasn’t convinced she’d done okay, but she did feel better.

The next day she rang to say her tutor had given his opinion of the presentation. “I was perfect,” she said. “He had no criticisms at all.”

My friend had a clear illustration of how she judges herself harshly and is beginning to let go of those criticisms. Although it may be easier to do this when you are young like she is, it is possible to make changes at any age. I have heard of 90 year-olds who begin to treat themselves more kindly and I have witnessed it in someone over 80. It’s never too late to learn to love yourself.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Here are some articles and websites that you might find useful in understanding why it’s okay to stop beating yourself up, or in providing ways to help you become more compassionate towards yourself.

My articles: What is Self-Talk

How to Overcome Limitations


Kristin Neff’s website Self-Compassion

The Sedona Method’s website has articles on Guilt and Shame, and why we hold on to them. I can’t provide a link to this site because it uses pop-up windows and links to these aren’t allowed on HubPages, but it is a reputable and very helpful site and I thoroughly recommend this method. It helped me hugely. Just search for Sedona Method or try community.sedona.com/forum.php - putting http:// before this address. (This is the community forum where you can get and give support with others, find out about free support calls and also find a coach.)

Non-violent Communication can help you develop more compassionate towards yourself and others.


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Comments 36 comments

pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 3 years ago from sunny Florida

Great article. It has taken many years for me to learn how to do this in most areas of my life. There is still one area that I have not quite totally conquered my 'demons' but it is slowly coming.

Thank you for sharing this. This definitely will be of benefit to others who are caught in this trap.

Sending Angels to you today.

:) ps


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Your section on acceptance is the key. Many years ago I could beat myself up quite well. Now I realize that I am just a spiritual being having a human experience, and as such I should not expect perfection from me. It sure has made a difference in the way I view life.


DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

There has those time when I had such negative thoughts usually when everything of the worst happens at once one would think they would never get up but from failure to success that is how it happens.


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 3 years ago from UK

"I'd be lazy and do nothing" were exactly my thoughts on what I would do if I silenced my inner bully! And I always find affirmations phoney. Interesting view on the self-esteem industry - I agree it's not making society any happier.


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

I sure need to print this out and plaster it to my bathroom mirror, put another copy near my computer, and keep a folded copy handy in my purse! Great hub! Thank you for reminding us that we need to celebrate ourselves!


Nettlemere profile image

Nettlemere 3 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

Positive affirmations had the same effect on me - it's great to read some science behind why they don't necessarily work. Overall a really useful, thought provoking article.


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Voted up and interesting. Thanks you for sharing this great hub. I think it does all begin with self love and being your own best friend. It isn't easy of course but one must try because otherwise life can get weary always beating up on oneself. Great video. Passing this on.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

pstrauble, it also took me many years to learn this, and I can relate to what you say about having one area that takes longer. It seems to go like that, and I guess the more we accept that the more we can let it go. I'm glad you think it will be of benefit to others! Thanks for your comment.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Bill, I agree that acceptance is key. I can imagine you were once good at beating yourself and it's so great you've let that go. We are of far more service to others when we are kind to ourselves. Thanks for popping by.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

DDE, it can be hard to not get hooked into negative thoughts when things seem bad, but you are so right that from failure can come success. Thanks for your comment.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Judi, that fear of being lazy is the main reason I held on to my inner bully (I love that phrase of yours!) for far too long. But definitely the research is on our side, not that bully's!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Nettlemere, I also found it interesting to learn why affirmations don't work for everyone, and quite freeing. So glad you found this a useful article, thanks!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Gypsy Rose Lee, I'd say you are right and self-love or acceptance is what it's about, it can take time to learn self-compassion, but is so worth it. And yes, isn't that video just great! Thanks for passing it on!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Marcy, I think it could be a great idea to keep a reminder and I really do recommend Neff's book. It's SO good, just beautiful. Thanks for your comment.


KrisL profile image

KrisL 3 years ago from S. Florida

Thanks for this! Unlike most feel-good stuff I have read on the internet or even published self-help books this was practical, helpful . . . and compassionate. I'm going to put (at least!) some of this into practice starting today.

Shared with my followers.


carter06 profile image

carter06 3 years ago from Cronulla NSW

You have put a lot of thought & research into a really important topic Melovy..good job..learning to understand & accept & allow ourselves to feel the way we do & being kind to ourselves is the key to accepting who we are for sure..great hub, votes & shared..cheers


SidKemp profile image

SidKemp 3 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

This is a beautiful introduction to self-compassion. Voted up and awesome. May I link to it from my hub on the Four Secrets of Happiness?


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi KrisL, it's so lovely to get comments like this! I'm so glad you see things in here that you can put into practice, that's exactly why I wrote this article and others like it - so that other people can also benefit from things that have benefited me. And thank you for passing it on!


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi carter06, yes, I've seen it over and over - in myself and others - the moment we have even a glimmer of self-acceptance or allow feelings we relax and change is possible. Thanks for adding your perspective.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi Sid, thanks for your validation, and of course you can link to it from your hub. (I'll take a look at it and link back.)


Ian Dabasori Hetr profile image

Ian Dabasori Hetr 3 years ago from Papua New Guinea

A good article. I actually was looking for something after losing a major investment deal. Thanks Mel. Hubpages needs you. Lets keep flying.

Ian


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Ian, sorry to hear about your deal, and I am so glad to read that this was helpful for you.

We all have days when we need something to remind us to be kind to ourselves. I still do too, and find Neff's self-compassion mantra or just allowing my emotions is so so helpful on those days.


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

We are much more critical of ourselves than we ever are with others. Self compassion is not only an interesting theory but a necessary one! Let go of our self criticism and start forgiving ourselves as we do others.

Great hub! Voted up, useful, and interesting.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Tillsontitan, sorry I missed your comment for so long. You are right that most people are far harder on themselves than anyone else - and that it's time to stop the self criticism!

Thanks for your comment and the vote up.


MsDora profile image

MsDora 3 years ago from The Caribbean

Voted Up and Useful! It's such a struggle keeping those thoughts positive all the time. Your exercises are very meaningful. Thank you very much.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi MsDora, so glad this resonates with you. We can all do with a little more self-love. Thanks for your comment and the vote up!


annart profile image

annart 3 years ago from SW England

Superb article. It's so important to be positive; we can't change the past but we can try to accept, learn from it, and move on. Great explanation of how to cope. Up, useful and interesting. Thanks. Ann


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi Annart, sorry to take long to reply. I had a bereavement and haven't been on Hubpages for a while. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and thanks very much for your kind comment.


annart profile image

annart 3 years ago from SW England

Not a problem; I'm away sometimes and it takes a while to catch up. Sorry to hear about your bereavement; hope you are back on track now. I'm looking forward to some more hubs from you.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 3 years ago from UK Author

Hi again annart, I've been away again. I don't think I'm likely to write more hubs, especially not the personal development ones since views are low, but I do write similar articles on my blog inquiringparent.com if you are interested in reading more of them. Thanks very much for your kind comment.


annart profile image

annart 3 years ago from SW England

Ok. Good luck with your blog and with your life in general. I'll try to get over to read your blog. All the best. Ann


manatita44 profile image

manatita44 2 years ago from london

Compassion. Such a necessary component of living. Great video. The importance of acceptance, so necessary. Great Hub. Peace.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 2 years ago from UK Author

Manatita44, I love that video too! Thanks for your comment and kind wishes.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 13 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Great hub, Yvonne. This was so very useful and inspirational for everyone who's feeling the blues, like I am right now.


Melovy profile image

Melovy 13 months ago from UK Author

Sorry to see you are feeling the blues Kristen, and glad this helped. I really do recommend Kristin Neff's book, and just now I'm reading "The Mindful Way Through Depression" by Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn, which is also very good.


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 13 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Thanks Melovy. I'll check out that books recommendation at the library. It really helped me deal with stresses in everyday life. :-)

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