I recently read a newspaper interview with multi-time Olympic gold medalist, Nadia Comaneci, who made Olympic history at age 14 by achieving the first ever PERFECT 10 scores awarded in gymnastics. When asked how she feels about her Perfect 10 performances when she watches them now, she said, "I never felt they were perfect. They were very good, but I still could have been better." 36 years after her incredible achievements, Comaneci sees the flaws. A Perfect 10 was not perfect to Nadia.
Not many of us have an opportunity to achieve what Nadia did - a perfect score - and if we did, would we, like Nadia, still see the flaws in our performance?
Setting and working towards high standards for self is not in itself a bad thing - I expound upon this theory in my "Football Field Principle" in Chapter 10 of my book, Harmony from the Inside Out (click here for a free chapter download). However, the beating up of oneself as one is working toward that "high standard" IS a bad habit. Self-judgment creates negativity, conflict, resentment, distrust and drama. It is, quite simply, unattractive and counter-productive.
Guess what! There is hope! There is help! If self-criticism has become your auto-response, you have created a bad habit and the good news is, you can form another habit. Neuroscientist Michael M. Merzenich, PhD, at the University of California said, "The brain is not like a computer that has fixed wiring and connections. Every aspect of you is created by the brain revising itself in response to your interactions in the world... How you define yourself - the person you are - is a product of plastic changes in your brain."
Transforming negative thinking doesn't occur instantly but it is possible. "People can't just change their attitude on a dime,"says Merzenich. "You're going against all that weight of experience. Thousands of historic moments have let to that bad attitude - every time you've thought about yourself in a defeatist or inferior position. That's deeply embedded, and it takes a substantial effort over a substantial time to drive the brain in a new direction."
Though it takes time and commitment to create a new habit, it is possible for anyone to make profound, fundamental changes in how their brain operates. It's really not that different from taking a Zumba dance class or going into training for a half-marathon to change your physical self.
Read on for some steps to get past the crippling effects of self-criticism.
Yes, all change starts with awareness. Are you highly self-critical? Do you routinely beat yourself up? Are you consciously aware of putting yourself down to others? Are you in the habit of pointing out your own faults?
See if you recognize yourself in any of the following scenarios:
Scenario: You serve a lovely dinner to friends, they say "Wow, this chicken is divine" and you say, "Well, the sauce is actually too runny."
Scenario: You hand a report in to your boss and she starts reading it while you are sitting in her office. Before she says anything, you immediately pipe up with - "The introduction isn't very good - I should have made it more engaging."
Scenario: You demonstrate a musical warm-up exercise in front of your chorus and immediately say "I demonstrated that horribly. Don't do it like me ."
If you are not aware of your self-flagellation, ask a friend or your partner for their observations in how you talk about yourself. Notice if they say any of the following (or variations thereof): "you are hard on yourself", "you are a perfectionist", "you don't realize how great you are", "you get down on yourself", "you tend to beat yourself up for your mistakes".
SELF- AWARENESS ACTION STEP:
To get a handle on just how entrenched this self put-down habit is, get yourself a small notepad and take a week to jot down all of your self-critical talk - whether it is out-loud talk or inner voices in your head. Ask a friend what they notice and reflect back their observations. Notice when others put themselves down and how that makes you feel.
On another page, jot down all of the times you said something positive about yourself to others.
What do you notice about this page?
2/ Analysis and Reality check
Notice: Once you are aware of your negative auto thoughts, notice if there is a pattern as to when that ugly monster starts talking out loud. Is it in certain areas of your life? With certain people? (Remember, this is an observation exercise, not a judgment).
Assess: Ask yourself, what do those negative self-put downs do for you. How does the beating yourself up move you forward? What positive results does the self-put-down give you? (Note: it must give you something or you wouldn't keep doing it. It is important to identify what the negative self put-downs give you).
Reality Check: Ask yourself - are my thoughts true? (eg/ from the scenario above: Was the sauce for the chicken way too runny?). If your answer is "YES", then rather than focusing on and expanding your current culinary failure into a sweeping condemnation of your culinary ability "I can't cook" and even further into a "I am a terrible host", keep objective about the matter at hand. Yes, the sauce was runny. Is there anything you can do about that in the moment? Probably not. Did that sauce ruin the dinner party? I doubt it. What could mar the joy of the party is your negatively commenting on the sauce, focusing on your failure and therefore making your guests feel uncomfortable because they see you are distressed about the sauce.
Thought Replacement: When the negative thought comes into your head, notice it, and before you say aloud one of your usual self put-downs, insert a positive thought about the same subject that is TRUE into your head. eg/ "The sauce is runny" thought might turn to "what wonderful conversation we have had at this dinner party" ; the "I screwed up the Introduction to the report" thought might switch to "I really was thorough on the body of the report." Better thoughts lead to better feelings, which lead to better action.
3/ Creating a new Self-Acceptance Paradigm
Self-Acceptance: Believe that you are exactly where you ought to be at this very moment. The point of power is in the present moment. Not what you might have done or been, not what you should do or be. If you don't like the place you are in, then focus your energy on how you will get out of it instead of focusing on where you don't want to be. Flip your thinking from the lack, or scarcity, into the abundant possibility place of what you want.
You are Enough: If you believe that right here, right now - whatever and whomever you are- is "enough", you will be freed from the pressure of having to be "something else".
Writer and researcher, Brene Brown, describes it as the journey from "What will people think" to "I am enough". You are more than enough - just the way you are. Take away the shoulds, the musts, the comparisons, the focus on lack or scarcity. You are enough. That is your new paradigm.
Get Support and Celebrate: Enroll others close to you to help you make your personal paradigm shift. Ask them to reflect back to you when they notice you putting yourself down. Ask them to help keep you on track. Celebrate each time you catch yourself and reframe. Even a small celebration or reward releases a shot of congratulatory dopamine, which reinforces the behaviour.
Nadia Comaneci interview, Globe and Mail newspaper, July 7, 2012 p. S7
Michael Mersenich interview, Oprah Magazine, August 2008, p. 220
Brene Brown, Book: "The Gifts of Imperfection"