When was the last time you told yourself you were an idiot? It's really not very nice. Maybe it was this morning, when you burned your toast, or forgot some important papers on the counter that you wanted to take to work? Or maybe you told yourself you were an idiot (lazy, good-for-nothing) yesterday when you said something you wish you hadn't said to your spouse, or made a blunder at a meeting, or didn't follow through on something you said you'd do.
Why is it that we're the first to rush to someone else's defense for being human, and we're the last to be so kind to ourselves? It seems we all do this - everyone I know anyway. We are so mean to ourselves, and say mean things to ourselves under our breath, regularly. It's like a quiet epidemic of meanness.
Where does this come from? Do we think we need the harsh inner voice to act as our manager? To give us a push and tell us to get off the couch? Do we fear: if I'm not harsh with myself, my true colors will come out and I won't get anything done?
I've got news to the contrary, folks.
If you want to get more from yourself (or anyone else), try a little authentic kindness.
Daniel Goleman, the New York Times writer and founder of Emotional Intelligence, writes in a recent blog at Harvard Business School about how tapping into dreams and good feelings helps us do better in our personal and professional lives:
"Being in the positive mood range activates brain circuits that remind us of how good we will feel when we reach a goal, according to research by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin. That's the circuit that keeps us working away at the small steps we need to take toward a larger goal - whether finishing a major project or a change in our own behavior."
Would you expect your manager or coach to tell you you're an idiot? (I REALLY hope not). Note the comparison between positive self talk and negative self talk from the same Goleman article:
"Talking about your positive goals and dreams activates brain centers that open you up to new possibilities. But if you change the conversation to what you should do to fix yourself, it closes you down."
Naturally, there are some deeper issues about self-esteem at play here - not just about getting stuff done. The business-minded, getting-stuff-done part is a nice side benefit of treating ourselves with higher regard. So let's delve a little deeper and look at the roots of this epidemic.
To start, we should know that there is a function for our inner critic, and that's to keep us safe. On the most basic level, it protects us from walking into a busy street or getting eaten by a saber-tooth tiger (back in the day). We developed this survival mechanism as our species first started walking on two legs, and that's been really helpful in, say, not eating poisonous plants.
But the inner critic (some call it shame - a big word, but a really important word to come to understand), as vital as he/she is, even in these modern days, can be rather pushy and dogmatic and, therefore, less than helpful. She's worn out her welcome to some degree. The dinosaur-age mechanism developed to shield us from danger hasn't quite evolved to keep up with current times. We need to thank the inner critic for her service in helping us survive, and then ask her to move over to let the inner advocate have more air time for a change. We can advance our own evolution.
Let's try it right now: Stop for a minute and take a deep, relaxing breath. Take a few seconds to call up the critic - you know the one - the really chatty one that tells you you're an idiot for the slightest infraction. See her, feel her presence, I'm sure you can think of a million things she might say. Now, thank her, and then ask her to wait outside for a few minutes. She can come back later. Watch the critic go away.
Now see the advocate take her place. What does the advocate have to say? She may sound more like a friend - more like what you would sound like if you were talking to a friend who is having a bad day. She would understand your situation; she would listen; she would give you all the benefits of her compassion.
"It's so understandable that you burned the toast this morning - you were distracted trying to help your daughter get ready for her presentation at school." Or "What you said in the meeting was not a blunder - it needed to be said." Or "You are a smart person. If you said something off point in the meeting, there's no way in the world anyone would think twice about it."
When the advocate speaks, can you feel yourself change physically? I can. I feel I have more room to breathe, literally. Tension in my spine eases. My shoulders relax. My heart rate slows nicely. I feel lighter in my mood. I am more open, ready for something new.
That's the deeper reason to cultivate kindness to ourselves (getting more done is a side bonus). If we're kinder to ourselves, our lungs will take in more oxygen. Our dopamine will increase and our stress hormones, such as cortisol and epinephrine, will decrease. We'll live longer, run faster, and love more. We will be happier.
So the next time you call yourself an idiot, or beat yourself up for something big or small, stop and take a deep breath. Can you find the humanness in your actions? Can you be kind instead of mean?
And if we're kinder and happier with ourselves, you betcha, we'll be kinder and happier with others around us. We'll be open to new ideas, new people, new ways of living. We won't be as quick to criticize. We won't see ourselves as idiots, so we are less likely to see others as idiots. We will see the world brighter, even if we burn the toast. We can stop the epidemic by curbing the inner critic for ourselves first. That, my kinder, gentler friend, is how we make the world a better place.
Kristin Thalheimer Bingham is teaching a workshop on Opening up to Self Compassion Saturday March 22, 2014 at Willard Beach Studio 1-3 p.m. Cost is $30