How to Not Beat Yourself Up After Screwing Up
Ever feel like a total jackass – like when you’ve snapped at someone, forgotten something important, or let someone down? You already feel terrible, but you double down on that feeling by slathering on a thick layer of self-recrimination, and shaming self-talk. Ever notice how that doesn’t actually help?
Not only is beating up on ourselves useless in terms of changing our behavior for the better, it makes us feel worse and thus more likely to do something else we’ll regret later, like numbing out with too many cookies (or cigarettes, alcohol, Netflix, shopping, or wherever you go for comfort). Here are four (or five, for you overachievers!) steps to help you be a good friend to yourself even when you’ve missed the mark and fallen short of your own expectations: Identify, Unify, Pacify, Emulsify, Clarify.
In order to shift out of a stressful state, you need to be aware that you’re in one in the first place. So notice, and describe it. “Wow, I’m really struggling (frustrated / ashamed / stressed / hurt) right now. This is hard!” (“Here’s one of those times when I might be tempted to beat myself up. Let’s not go there.”) And tune into what’s happening physically: notice your breath. Acknowledge any tension in your body. As you take stock of what’s going on in your body and in your mind, you slip into the role of witness or observer. See how that worked? Just by watching your mind and naming what’s happening, you shift away from whatever horrible story you’re telling yourself (painful fiction) and stay with what’s actually happening. This is essentially mindfulness.
Suffering is part of the human condition. Whatever it is you’re going through is not unique to you: we will all experience grief, shame, loss, stress, fear, and regret at some point. It’s part of life. Remind yourself: “It’s OK – everyone feels like this sometimes.” You’re still worthy of love, care, and forgiveness like the rest of humanity; you’re also not perfect. If you’re used to holding yourself to super-human standard, this may chafe against your sense of self at first. Let it, and join your fellow humans. Tell yourself: “Everybody makes mistakes; nobody’s perfect.” Recognizing your “common humanity” is a key component of self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
Pacify your nervous system with touch. As mammals, we’re hardwired to relax when we are touched in a gentle way. When we’re stressed, touch is a more powerful nutrient than food, especially for our nervous system. (Remember the study with the baby monkeys who preferred cuddling with the fluffy stuffed animal mama which gave them no physical food over the wiry mama replica that gave milk? Maybe that’s only required reading in massage therapy school. . . ) Pick a place that feels good to you. I like to put one hand over my heart center and the other on my belly so that I can feel what’s going on with my breath. If I’m trying to be subtle about it, I’ll lay a comforting hand on my wrist or arm as I might caress a friend. Focus on the sensation of touch. Feel it soothing your freaked out nervous system.
Use a drop of self-compassion as a kind of dish detergent to dissolve the greasy film of uncomfortable feelings. What sort of empathy and care would you extend to a friend in the same circumstances? Conjure that up in your heart, and imagine it circulating out to every cell in your body. Feel your heart giving, and your cells receiving, this empathy.
There. Doesn’t that feel better than self-flagellation? Now that you’ve soothed your nervous system comes your fifth bonus step: clarify. Ask yourself what, if anything, can be done? If there is something, do it; if not, let it go.
So those are the steps: Identify, Unify, Pacify, Emulsify, Clarify. The best way I know to get better at this whole process is with a bodymind practice like qi gong, meditation, or yoga, which can help you break out of your habituated thought patterns and get you in the habit of tuning into yourself with curiosity rather than judgment.
(These steps were inspired by the work of Kristin Neff, PhD., Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, Tara Brach, Brene Brown, Ph.D., and Pema Chodron, among other scholars and spiritual teachers.)