“I have only three enemies. My favorite enemy, the one most easily influenced for the better, is the British Empire. My second enemy, the Indian people, is by far more difficult. But my most formidable opponent is a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi. With him, I seem to have little influence.” ~ Mahandas K. Gandhi
The most common thing my clients struggle with is (and always has been) that they are too hard on themselves.
I struggle with this too. Although self-judgment is common and comes in many forms, it can be addressed with some simple and effective techniques.
When I speak of such judgment, I refer to the blame (even for things outside of our control), criticism, berating, disparaging comments and self-doubt we inflict upon ourselves.
This is such a common mode of thinking that we often don’t notice we’re guilty of it. What we do notice is that we feel bad about ourselves. This gets in the way of our confidence and our ability to approach the things that make life feel happy and meaningful: relationships, achievements, success, and so on.
When we hold ourselves to unrealistically high standards and expect perfection, disappointment is inevitable. We are human, and we can only be human, after all.
If our human minds were programmed for unsullied contentment and happiness, we would not have wondered if it was dangerous to wander into a lion’s den. We would not have been driven to master fire, design tools or protect ourselves from predators and the elements. Perhaps we would not have made the effort to keep ourselves hydrated, fed, clean and warm.
Basically, our minds evolved to keep us safe and to perpetuate our species. Not to keep us happy. Discomfort is our driving force.
The best way to overcome our tendency toward negativity is by adopting a meditation practice and practicing mindfulness throughout our day. Meditation may not be for everyone. Meaningful progress takes time. However, one immediately notices just how easily and often our minds wander into negative territory.
Even without meditation, mindfulness practices can be used by anyone, anytime and anywhere. A common practice is to give that critical voice in your head a name or title. Whenever you notice that it has taken over your thoughts, greet it, thank it for its input, and let it know you are just fine.
For example, if I named my voice “Little Miss Perfect,” when self-judgment occurs, I could think the following thought: “Hello Little Miss Perfect, thank you for all your thoughtful input today, but I know that I look just fine.” After this, I let go of the negative thoughts and turn my attention to those which empower me. Dwelling on things does no service.
Another tool that is useful, for those who are hard on themselves throughout the day, is to install a mindfulness app on your smartphone. It will ring a bell at random intervals so that you can get present and check in on where your thoughts are. If you have been thinking thoughts that do not serve you, let them go. Replace them with empowering ones.
It is best not to struggle or argue with these thoughts. They’re not rational. Even so, they can put up a good fight. Simply notice them as content of the mind. They are not you.
If you think about it, the mind churns out thoughts like our mouths produce saliva. Not all thoughts are useful. When my clients are struggling, I encourage them to view their feelings in the same way. Feelings are simple sensations in our bodies, however unpleasant.
Thoughts and feelings are not accurate predictors of the future. They can often misconstrue present events, too.
If we choose thoughts that serve and support us, we give ourselves a greater opportunity to feel empowered and engaged with life.
If you have trouble with this, perhaps find a childhood photograph of yourself. Keep it with you at all times. When these negative thoughts arise, imagine saying them to your childhood self. Or to any child, for that matter. Would you say that to a child? Probably not.
Be your own best parent. Be patient with yourself. These tendencies are hardwired in your brain. It takes time to break the habit. One which will have developed over the course of your life. Don’t kick yourself when you’re down. Just notice when thoughts come up again. Let them go without argument, struggle or resistance. Don’t forget to congratulate yourself when you become aware and catch yourself, nipping it in the bud as soon as it starts. With time and practice this can become a thing of the past.
So, depending on which way you choose to look at it, we’ve been either gifted or cursed by our evolutionary history.
We are designed to search for comparison. Observing others, we may consider ourselves lacking or inferior. We are able to consider alternative outcomes and feel regret.
In our modern reality, this predisposition can make our minds our own worst enemy. Fortunately, for thousands of years, Buddhists have passed down wisdom that specifically addresses how to overcome these negative and counter-productive tendencies of the mind. For many hundreds of years, psychologists have studied theses same tendencies. There are now an abundance of tools and methods for taking back control over our thinking minds.
Author: Susan Rotella
Image: Josh Sniffen/Flickr
Apprentice Editor: Catherine Simmons; Editor: Yoli Ramazzina