Why are we so hard on ourselves? (Day 38)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

We can be very hard on ourselves, can’t we? It’s as if, sometimes, we’re watching out for any tiny hint of a mistake, and then we pounce on ourselves, getting angry, or frustrated, or ashamed.

I suspect it’s because we can be. When people are allowed or encouraged to be cruel, they often will be. There’s some inherent cruelty in all of us (to varying extents) and this is kept in check by social norms. Change the social norms so that cruelty is encouraged, and it soon emerges. The Standford Prison Experiment and other similar studies shows that that cruel streak is there and can easily be brought out to the surface.

Those social norms are reduced in the family home, which is a “private space” somewhat separated from society. You can do things there with less inhibition (pick your nose, wander around naked). One of the things you can do, free from normal social expectations, is act unkindly to family members. People are often more unkind to those they’re closest too than to anyone else.

This sometimes spills out into public behavior, so that you see parents treating children very unkindly. Listen to the way parents talk to each other and to their children in public, and compare it to how friends and strangers talk to each other. There’s little restraint — despite their actually being in public.

And inside our heads? That’s the most private space there is. We have all internalized all kinds of behaviors from others, but especially from our parents, and so that unrestrained harshness, which ricochets from generation to generation, is a part of us. And there’s no one in side our heads to remind us that there are more civilized ways to behave.

There’s the factor as well that we can hear our own thoughts, but not those of others. So when people are sitting meditating with others, they’re aware of the babble inside their own heads, but look around and see everyone else sitting in silence, and assume that they’re equally silent inside. We think we’re the odd one out. We’re worse than everyone else; especially deserving of harsh treatment. Or so we think.

Harshness is a strategy. The idea is that if we’re unkind enough in response to a particular behavior, then that behavior won’t be repeated. It’s classic “operant conditioning” — the modifying of conscious behavior through positive reinforcement and punishment. Those of us who are “perfectionists” are very used to this, although we tend to forget the “positive reinforcement” part. We take “getting it right” for granted, and instead focus on making ourselves feel bad when we haven’t performed up to our expectations. We use the stick, a lot, and forget the carrot. For many perfectionists “doing it right” is supposed to be its own reward, although as it happens this turns out, often, not to be very rewarding at all.

And this “stick only” approach to motivation can work, up to a point. Perfectionist people often do perform well. But the cost in terms of emotional pain and stress can be huge. The cost can be burnout, mental illness, depression, chronic illness — even suicide.

Fortunately we have ways to change our inner culture, and to learn to talk and act more kindly toward ourselves internally.

When we realize that there’s an alternative because we’re learning from people who are kinder to themselves, or when the stresses of giving ourselves a hard time become just too much, we can experiment with being kind to ourselves and learn that it feels amazing. I’m not talking about the “being kind” that involves days in the spa and expensive chocolates eaten by candle-light (although I won’t knock those) but the “being kind” that involves behaving with kindness internally: being forgiving, talking to ourselves in a gentle tone of voice, allowing ourselves to have breaks when we need them, meeting our needs for sleep, exercise, and food, giving ourselves a pat on the back when we’ve done something skillful, being careful about how much work we take on. All those things, when we do them, feel great, usually. And they also tend to lead to us “doing well.” The low stress mind — the one that’s stretched by a demanding task but not operating out of anxiety — is an effective mind. It’s one that functions optimally. So kindness can work better than perfectionism, often, although I don’t suggest that we be kind in order to be more effective. Be kind because it’s a better way to be. And then notice how that helps you be more effective in various aspects of your life.

So how about, as we’re talking to ourselves and responding emotionally to ourselves, we imagine that we’re talking to someone we dearly love — perhaps a child that we want to encourage. How about we notice the tone of how we talk to ourselves, and see whether what we say and how we say it hardens or softens the heart? How about we become our own audience, so that our inner communication isn’t thought of as something private and shut away, but is something that’s heard, even if only by the wiser and kinder parts of ourselves?

Maybe then we can change our inner culture, and be less hard on ourselves. And we may find that this makes it easier to be kinder to others, too.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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