After a very long day at work, I stood in line at the counter waiting for my takeout pizza to bring home. Unconsciously, I was berating myself for all the things I had left undone: taxes still to be filed, an offsite meeting to be prepared, client emails to be returned and all the usual turmoil of an overtired brain. Looking up, I noticed a collection of school essays pinned to the wall, each proudly displaying a gold star from some unidentified English teacher. This one spoke directly to me, so naturally I took a photograph of it. Here is what it read:
People Are Hard on Themselves
By Sophie B., 4th Grade
I have been noticing people being hard on themselves. This is like a little fish swimming into the mouth of a shark. People do this when they meet someone new, when they are trying to impress someone, or when they are trying to learn something new. People are very hard on themselves when they try to impress someone. There she is, I thought in my head. My old ballet teacher was standing right in front of me. Try not to mess up!, a voice in my head said.
People are hard on themselves when they have a friend over that they haven’t seen in a long time. And people are hard on themselves when they meet someone new. For example, one time in third grade, a new girl came in the middle of the year. I wanted so bad to impress her. At recess, I started following her everywhere. Even in the cafeteria. Remember to be nice to her, I said to myself. When people meet someone new, they can be real hard on themselves.
Also, people can be real hard on themselves when they are learning something new. Ugh! I thought, as I clutched my head that hurt from thinking too hard about the homework that I didn’t get. I dropped my pencil, and plopped myself down on the couch. You can be too hard on yourself when you are doing something new and hard. People are hard on themselves for many reasons.
The first thing that struck me about this essay, aside from how absolutely charming it is, was how well developed this little girl’s internal critic is at only 9 years of age. There she is, telling herself not to “mess up” in front of her old ballet teacher. There she is trying desperately to make a “good impression” on the new girl, even following her into the cafeteria. But I especially love the image of her flopping onto the couch, when her head starts to hurt from overthinking her homework. With a cold compress to soothe her addled brain, no doubt!
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us are experts at self-criticism. Why wouldn’t we be? We’ve had years of practice. And we live in a society that loves to judge people harshly and quickly. One look at the evening cable news, where only the shrillest voices are heard, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s no surprise then, that we tend to treat ourselves with the same all-or-nothing approach. If I make a mistake, then I am the mistake. If I say something stupid, then I am stupid. The seeds are planted early. Sophie here is just getting started.
Negative self-talk is a kind of inner violence that we inflict upon ourselves. And because it happens so quickly and automatically, it tends to go unchallenged. I think if most people were to audit their inner dialogue for just one day, they would be truly shocked at what they’re saying to themselves. What does this violence look like? Well, it’s ruminating over old mistakes. It’s setting standards of perfection that are unattainable, and then beating yourself up when those standards are not met. It’s not being patient with yourself when attempting to learn something new or difficult. It’s trying to impress someone whose opinion of us we know shouldn’t really matter. It’s neglecting to appreciate how far you’ve come. It’s not asking for help when you need it.
Some people are very hard on themselves, or “little fish swimming into the mouth of the shark”, as Sophie so delicately puts it. So maybe we need to lighten up, cut ourselves some slack now and again. Maybe some of that energy we spend beating ourselves up, we can put into practicing self-compassion. So you screwed up, now what? What did you learn from it? One side benefit of practicing self-compassion is that it can also help our “other” relationships immeasurably too. We are nicer to be around. The more we can forgive ourselves for not being perfect, the more likely we are to be forgiving of others.
When feeling stressed or overwhelmed, we would do well to follow Sophie’s example. Drop the pencil, flop onto the couch and apply a cold compress if necessary. The harsh inner critic may never go away, but we don’t always have to listen to it. Maybe we can replace the message with something more loving and self-supporting. How about this one: “I am trying to do my best here. And maybe just for today, that’s good enough.”
Some people are very hard on themselves. Remember to go easy.