We tend to beat ourselves up for all sorts of things—for making a bad decision 2 years ago. For making a rude remark. For not going back to school when we were younger. For getting into debt. For staying in a toxic relationship for too long. For bombing an interview for a job we so desperately wanted. For not being productive. For being too sensitive. For misspelling a word. For giving a boring presentation.
Basically, for so many of us, the list is endless.
And, of course, we beat ourselves up for days, months, years. An insult-fueled record that plays on repeat.
Rachel Dack’s clients often turn a small mistake, poor decision or bad behavior into a permanent failure. They give “it way too much power over their worth, and they struggle to see it as an isolated experience.” An error becomes “I always fail” or “I never do anything right” or “My life is ruined,” she said.
Some clients believe they must be ruthless with their mistakes to motivate themselves. Yet the opposite happens: “Unfortunately, this sets them up for a cycle of being stuck and discouraged as they devalue themselves instead of harnessing the motivation they seek,” said Dack, LCPC, NCC, a psychotherapist and relationship coach who specializes in supporting clients with low self-esteem, anxiety, personal growth and intimacy issues.
People also worry that showing their humanity will hurt them personally and professionally, said Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, an integrative trauma therapist in private practice outside of Baltimore. “It doesn’t really matter what the mistake was, because the part that makes it feel intolerable is that they allowed themselves to show a chink in their armor.”
Maybe your fear of mistakes originates from childhood or young adulthood. Maybe you were punished, berated or judged. Instead of learning that mistakes are inevitable, you began feeling shame, Dack said. So, today, you try to avoid criticism at all costs. Your “need to be loved, accepted and valued can create unrealistic expectations, a need for perfectionism and a harsh inner critic.”
But whatever your past or views on mistakes, you can learn to ease up on yourself. Below, Dack and Reagan shared five valuable strategies.
Direct compassion toward your inner critic.
Reagan believes self-compassion is the best way to cope with a roaring inner critic. Specifically, she suggested taking a deep breath and asking your inner critic: “What do you want me to know? What do you need?” For instance, maybe a part of you is scared that you won’t be liked or you’ll lose your job over one too many mistakes.
You also can check in with your body for feelings of fear, sadness, worry, self-doubt or any other emotions, she said.
Then talk to yourself with the same compassion as someone you love. “I like to think of what a small child would need to hear for comfort when feeling those uncomfortable emotions, and say that.”
Reagan shared this example concerning work: “I know it’s scary; you’re afraid you will lose your job. It’s OK to be afraid.” (You might be surprised to learn that honoring your feelings—and comforting yourself—actually lessens their intensity, she added.)
See slip-ups as growth spurts.
“View your mistakes or poor decisions as opportunities for growth, self-discovery, reflection and learning,” Dack said. For instance, her client was beating herself up about staying in a relationship with a toxic partner. She tried to end the relationship many times. But she still kept texting him and hoping he’d change—which deepened her shame.
When she started looking at her actions as an opportunity for self-discovery and growth, she gained vital insights: She realized that she was trying to protect herself from starting over, being single and possibly being rejected by future partners. She also found it comforting that she knew exactly what to expect from him.
Slowly, she started examining what she wanted in a partner and practicing being open and available. “She also owned her needs and took accountability, leading her to the empowered woman she is today,” Dack said.
Trying to do everything “right” or perfectly is emotionally and physically exhausting—and unrealistic (i.e., impossible). Which means we’ll be spending a lot of time feeling discouraged and disappointed.
Instead, Dack suggested examining your time, motivation and effort. Remind yourself “that goals take time, consistency and energy to achieve.”
To get realistic, get very specific and plan out your steps, she said. Remove the words “always” and “never” from your vocabulary. Replace “shoulds” with values-based language.
For instance, Dack said, you’d change “I should say yes to all social plans if I want my friends to like me” to “I will balance my social life with my own needs and downtime” or “I am committed to saying no when I am feeling overwhelmed, and it is important for me to take care of myself” or “I will do my best to be honest with my friends about my needs.”
Observe more. Judge less.
Dack suggested using mindfulness to practice observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment or attachment. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and focus on your breathing. “Use your breath as an anchor and allow thoughts and feelings to pass like water in a flowing stream or a train on a track.”
If you notice that you’re judging yourself or attaching to a thought or feeling, return to your breath. Plant your feet firmly into the ground to come back to the moment.
When you’re exhausted, constantly striving and forcing yourself to work harder (and harder), you not only make more mistakes; your inner critic gets louder, said Reagan, also the host of Therapy Chat podcast. It shows up more frequently than when you’re treating yourself with compassion, she said.
According to Reagan, practicing self-care can look like: listening to your favorite music; taking walks in nature; resting when you need to rest; connecting with supportive people; making time to dance and play; and getting enough sleep.
You might be all-too used to beating yourself up when you mess up—whatever your slip-up, decision or behavior. Over time, it might even feel as automatic as breathing.
Thankfully, this is something you can change. You can slowly start to be self-compassionate. You can use your actions to learn helpful lessons. You can remind yourself that you are human and imperfect. And that’s OK. And you can keep taking tender care of yourself.