Our mind spends most of its time evaluating, interpreting, judging, and trying to control our external world. It is constantly concerned with solving problems and ensuring that we don’t fail. To do this, it relives past situations and anticipates future events. This ability to abstract ourselves, to ramble through our thoughts, reflects a big part of human suffering. Moreover, because we are humans, we will all, without exception, invariably fail at some point in our lives. We will regret something we have said or done, we will make mistakes in our work, and we will struggle to stick to a training plan or a diet. These failures can cause us pain because they often represent the loss of something important to us, but the relationship we establish with this failure transforms the pain into suffering. But how can we change this relationship? How can we make our relationship with failure healthier?
Look at the relationship you are building with yourself
First of all, we need to know and be aware of the relationship we have with ourselves.
And so, before you continue reading this text, I would like you to do this exercise: think of a moment in your life when you have felt deeply ashamed due to a fault.
Have you ever thought about it? It is very likely that you felt an immediate discomfort when you read that sentence. During the time you spent doing this exercise, what did you say to yourself? What words did you use? What story did your mind tell you about yourself? And what sensations and emotions appear when you listen to these stories?
Very often, what happens with this exercise is that we notice a self-critical voice. Most of us are extremely hard on ourselves when we fail. “I can’t believe you made an embarrassment of myself.” “I’m a failure.” “I will never do anything right.”
And why do we criticize ourselves so much?
Self-criticism as a false motivator
Human beings have a deep desire to belong and be accepted in the various contexts (social, professional and family) in which we belong. And often, we believe that self-criticism prevents us from failing again and protects us from the criticism of others, thus ensuring that we behave in a way to be approved and recognized. In this sense, self-criticism seems to offer us motivation and seems to have an adaptive utility in our lives.
But does self-criticism make us better and contribute to our development?
Let’s think about how we feel when we criticize ourselves — “I’m really incompetent, I’ll never be able to do this job” — after you say this to yourself, do the feelings that come up in you relate to understanding, motivation, productivity or creativity? If you are having doubts about answering this question, think about whether this is how you would support the most special person in your life. And here the answer seems more obvious. No! The truth is that self-criticism can trigger feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and insecurity, which often lead to mental health problems such as depression. In addition, a critical mind increases the likelihood that we will engage in procrastination behaviors, increases our intolerance to uncertainty, decreases our willingness to take risks or accept challenges, and builds negative self-concepts.
So what is the alternative to a critical mind? It’s a compassionate mind.
Self-compassion as a force of change
We often believe that if we are too kind and understanding of ourselves, we will become irresponsible, disorganized, aimless human beings who are uncommitted to what is really important to us. Hence we nurture a self-critical voice, as we have discussed.
However, self-compassion does not mean taking a passive stance towards what happens to us. On the contrary, it requires that we consciously notice what is happening, recognize what we are feeling and make space for those feelings to be present without criticizing or judging. Furthermore, self-compassion involves the awareness that all human beings suffer and make mistakes throughout life, therefore, other people feel the same things in similar situations. Finally, a compassionate mind is a mind that responds in a benevolent, caring, and understanding way, taking on the difficulty of living through certain experiences and focusing on our needs.
When you make a mistake or feel like you’ve failed, remember that this moment is also an opportunity to build a healthy relationship with yourself. You can start by:
- Notice that you are criticizing yourself;
- Don’t criticize yourself for criticizing yourself — recognize the function of self-criticism in your life, and make room for another response, a more compassionate response;
- Talk to yourself as if you were talking to a person very dear and special to you, or imagine what that person would say to you;
- Ask yourself: What do I need now?
Our relationship with ourselves is the most important one in our lives; take care of it with love!