How to Stop Beating Yourself Up
When you make a mistake or are disappointed in yourself for something you did (or didn't do), do you react by beating yourself up?
Does it help?
Not usually. It may relieve some of your guilt, but most times not. More likely, it makes you feel worse.
So what's the alternative?
I'll get there, but first let's understand the problem.
Beating yourself up may happen occasionally, but when it's a regular part of your thoughts and self-talk, you are caught in a pattern of masochism. The term masochism has all sorts of sexual connotations accompanied by visions of whips and chains, but that's not what we're talking about here.
Psychological masochism is characterized by a pattern of self blame, self condemnation, self deprivation, and sometimes self harm. Here are some characteristics that may hit home with you:
- Blaming yourself for things you really have no control over
- Blaming yourself for things that are someone else's responsibility
- Excessive guilt that goes way beyond the initial problem
- Feeling inferior
- Having a lot of self deprecating thoughts like "I'm stupid," or "I'm an idiot."
- Depriving yourself of pleasure
- Finding relationships with partners that undervalue you, or worse, abuse you
- Harming yourself through bad habits
- At the extreme, self-mutilation such as cutting
There are two ways to be masochistic. The first one involves only you, and the internal conversation you have with yourself.
I call it the "mean girl voice" that tells you that you aren't as good as other people, aren't worthy or likable, aren't smart or capable, aren't talented, and certainly aren't deserving.
This same voice also heaps tons of guilt upon you when you make a mistake. You spend hours to days working it over.
You may look for relief in food, alcohol, or other drugs of choice. You then beat yourself up for those indulgences.
It's a horrible, exhausting treadmill, and you can't get off.
Then there's external masochism. In this instance you find people in your environment to do the beating up for you.
You pick the worst partners that are emotionally, and sometimes physically abusive. They demean you, dismiss you, ignore you, demand way too much of you, and make you responsible for most everything that goes wrong.
They are easily angered, or conversely absent most of the time. You often have to walk on eggshells with them.
The real conundrum is that you feel like you can't live without them, and you stay.
How Does This Happen?
It usually starts early and is often tied to your personal history. Maybe one of your parents was masochistic, and you witnessed these behavior patterns regularly.
Or, you may have been the subject of heavy criticism, or made to feel very guilty for even little mistakes, or had a perfectionistic parent who you regularly disappointed.
You may have had a long term relationship with someone that mistreated you, and you have become accustomed to being devalued.
Whatever the case, if you feel that you are caught up in masochistic patterns, you can be sure that it has become an emotional home for you. What that means is that you are used to it, and it provides some comfort for you even though it is painful.
That's a big statement! I'm not saying that you really want to be stuck in these patterns, but they have become very familiar and it might feel quite uncomfortable to make a change.
Nevertheless, it needs to change because ultimately you:
- Deserve better.
- It's harmful to your psyche, your health, and your emotional well-being. It creates chronic emotional stress with long-term negative repercussions that are real.
- It's a constant emotional drain that leaves you deflated and depressed.
- It keeps you from pursuing your unique talents.
- It leads to other poor behaviors that jeopardize your future.
- It keeps you from having a truly reciprocal and caring relationship with anyone, including your children.
How to Change
Psychological patterns are not easy to change, but most certainly they can be changed with steady attention and effort.
Step 1: Be aware.
First step is to identify the pattern.
Do you identify with any of the behaviors I described above?
You may not be highly masochistic, but you may engage in one or two behaviors such as:
- Apologizing often for things that aren't your fault
- Taking the blame for things you couldn't help
- Feeling overly guilty and chastizing yourself when you make a mistake.
- Seeking out relationships with people that take advantage of you, denigrate you, or make you feel unworthy.
The first step is to take a hard look at how this is happening, and under what circumstances.
Step 2: Start questioning.
Before making any big changes, get clear on "what's real."
When you begin blaming yourself for something, stop and carefully assess whether you are responsible. Is it me or is someone else responsible? Were there circumstances that made it impossible for some other action to occur?
[A note here: Replace the word "blame" with "responsibility." Blame has a negative connotation. Responsibility implies taking some action to amend or repair.]
Clear Up Your Misperceptions
This is a process of correcting what's called "cognitive distortion." Here's a definition from PsychCentral:
Cognitive distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn't really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves.
Cognitive distortions go hand in hand with masochistic behavior, especially in relationships where you are adoptoing your partner's distorted view of you.
They also come into play in your internal thought patterns that cast you in the most negative light.
Pull up each thought as it occurs and ask yourself,
- Is this really true?
- Even if there is some truth, is it always true?
- Is it true only in some circumstances? What are they?
Become a detective. Your job is not to make any changes yet, but to investigate your thoughts, your actions, and the situations you find yourself in that lead to masochistic thoughts.
Here are some typical ways we distort thoughts. Use this list to help you uncover your own patterns:
- Negative Bias. You focus on the negatives while ignoring the positives.
- Place Blame. Someone must be at fault for everything that goes wrong. It is either you or the other person. You don't look at a situation objectively and identify correctly either your own contributions or someone else's. You accept blame that is not yours, or you blame others for your part. Sometimes there is no one to blame, but blame is still assigned, usually to you.
- All or Nothing. It's all good or all bad, and that means you're all good or all bad. For masochists, you're all bad and the other person is all good. Everything is seen in black and white. There are no gray areas.
- You are Your Mistake. Instead of seeing yourself as someone who makes mistakes, you are the mistake. If you are late arriving somewhere, instead of saying "I should have left home a little earlier to get here on time," you say, "I'm such a loser! I'm always late!"
- Overgeneralization. You go from a single incident to an always interpretation. If the dinner you are cooking didn't turn out quite right, you say to yourself "I never get it right. My dinners all turn out horrible."
- Discount Your Positives. You avoid recognizing your positive qualities, talents, uniqueness, or capabilities.
A good exercise is to write down your distorted thoughts and evaluate which type of thought distortion you are using from the list above.
A lot of thoughts will fall under more than one category, but what's great about this exercise is that you'll probably notice you use several distortions more than others.
By figuring out what type of distortions you use, you'll find it easier to recognize them quickly when they occur, and make corrections.
Step 3: Make slow changes.
Step 3 will begin to happen if you are consistent with Step 2. Once you begin to uncover your distorted thinking, you automatically start having more accurate thoughts and impressions.
Accurate thoughts lead to different emotions. Your self-worth and self acceptance will increase, and you will be able to treat yourself with more compassion and kindness.
Bigger changes that come as a result of working hard on Step 2 are:
- Leaving relationships that are detrimental to you and to your sense of self
- Finding and pursuing your talents
- Improved mood and energy
- Improved confidence
- Engaging in activities that bring you satisfaction and happiness
- Accepting yourself, mistakes and all
- Getting on top of self-defeating behaviors and patterns
Step 4: Instead of guilt, repair!
This step also happens concurrently with the others. You adopt an attitude of making corrections or reparations when you make a mistake as opposed to heaping guilt upon yourself and feeling emotionally paralyzed.
I've addressed this process in my blog " Be Your Own Best Parent." Essentially, you adopt the attitude of a loving parent who always loves you regardless of what you do, but holds the line on your behavior when necessary, and focuses on how to repair mistakes rather than criticize you for them.
Step 5: Acknowledge your positives.
If you are in the habit of mentally listing all that is wrong with you, you will have some difficulty in turning that habit around, but you can do it with consistent effort.
First thing is to change your mindset from "I'm not worthy," to "Everyone is worthy and has something unique to offer." It's a matter of recognizing and acknowledging your own unique qualities and embracing them.
Start by making a written list of things you like about yourself, or personal assets you have.
If you can't come up with anything, ask someone who knows you to help you with the list, and list as many things as you can. Even simple things like being a expert at doing laundry should go on the list. Keep this list handy and review it daily and add to it.
Record Your New Self-Talk
To take it a step further, transform the items on your list into full sentences as though someone was going to read them. These sentences can include anything; things you can do well, attitudes you have, what kind of a friend or partner you are, ways of thinking, values you uphold . . . Anything and everything!
When you have your sentences completed, record yourself reading them. You can do this with a smartphone that has recording capability, or you can download a free app that will allow you to do it.
Once you have the recording done, listen to it at least 3 times a day. Morning, midday and before bed works!
It may seem strange or uncomforable at first, but the more you do this, the more these thoughts will seep into your subconscious and begin to influence the way you see yourself.
Conversely, your negative self talk will begin to decline. You will actually be rewiring your brain. The key is consistency and repetition.
Step 6: Start setting boundaries.
Now that you have identified and understand ways that you may be participating in masochistic patterns of behavior, and you've started to correct your distorted thinking about yourself and embrace your self worth, it's time to start setting boundaries to keep your progress in place.
Just as there are two ways to be masochistic, there are two types of boundaries you need to establish: internal and external.
These are the boundaries you set for your own behavior. You will need to place limits on distorted thinking, self destruction, focusing on negatives, exaggerating mistakes, taking responsibility for things that don't belong to you, or ignoring your positive contributions and characteristics. You can use the methods I've described above.
Any change in habit takes concerted and ongoing effort, especially those that are deeply embedded in your psyche.
Even as you practice the first 5 steps, it will be easy to fall back into your usual ways of looking at things, and usual behavior patterns. It is your default, and in some ways it is a comfort zone because of it's familiarity.
I find it useful to come up with a word or phrase that means something to me, and that I can say when I catch myself falling back into old patterns.
An example would be the phrase "tipping point." This phrase comes from Malcolm Gladwell's book of the same title, and refers to the momentum that occurs when something is receiving 51% or more of the focus.
If you are thinking of positive thoughts about yourself 51% and negative thoughts 49%, you are moving in a positive direction and tipping upward.
If I notice myself engaging in distorted or negative thinking, I mentally say to myself "Tipping point!" That reminds me to reset. It's a good way to break up ruminating and runaway thoughts. Once you reset, you can correct or start off in another direction.
These are the boundaries you set with other people. This can be a harder step because it requires overcoming fear, second guessing, confusion, and anxiety.
Go slow, but just make sure you go. You'll find it easiest to set boundaries with people you don't know all that well, and who you don't rely on in any particular way.
For those close to you, and especially those who are involved in masochistic patterns of behavior with you, change will take more time.
When you change the way you feel and the way you behave, others will feel the shift and may become uncomfortable. Not only are you shifting your behavior, you are requiring the other person to make a shift too. The difference is that you made a conscious decision to alter your behavior and mindset, and the other person did not, so you are very likely going to stir up some resistance.
If you are dealing with a fairly healthy relationship, you can be honest and explain your new insights and how you have been affected by them. You can also describe the new behavior patterns you are working on and changing. Your goal is to enlist support from the other person to help the process along.
If the relationship is unhealthy, and the other person involved is invested in perpetuating the dysfunctional patterns, you may have to assess whether changes can be made or not, and it may take some time, or trial and error including some frank discussions to see if that is possible.
You will create distance with some people, and maybe permanently. With others you will even the playing field so that there is mutual consideration and respect.
Learn how to say no when you need to, and remember that people who really love and care about you will adapt to the change and applaud you for it.
The key is to not get discouraged by slow progress. Progress is progress and the more you move forward, the faster you'll proceed. When you fall backwards, just reset and keep at it until eventually you have made a significant shift.
Any behavior pattern can be changed, and you are certainly worth it!
A Last Note
Acknowledging your positive attributes, skills, talents, values, and assets is not being pathologically narcissistic. It's affirming. The key is to do that while also taking responsibility for mistakes and negative behavior patterns, and working to correct them. You can be humble and own your personal value at the same time.