All of us need a kick in the pants now and then, especially when we’re not working up to our full potential. At these times, both criticism from others and from ourselves can be helpful in motivating us to quit coasting and get ourselves in gear. But like anything else, we can overdo being hard on ourselves. Self-criticism can be especially troubling because it can begin with a trifling matter, but escalate into a regular pattern of thinking. For instance, do you often make a mountain out of a molehill? You went to the store and one of the items on your list was peanut butter. When you got home, you discovered that instead of smooth, you bought crunchy. Granted, your spouse and kids refuse to eat crunchy, but should you beat yourself up over this mistake? Of course not. Hit the pause button, step back, and let some critical thinking enter the picture. No one is going to starve; call your wife at work so she can stop by the store on the way home if she really craves some peanut butter.
As therapist Michael Church points out, self-criticism can also enter the picture if you treat others’ mistakes differently from your own. When you see others slip up, do you show empathy and understanding, recognizing that their mistake does not reveal a character flaw? When you make a similar mistake, however, do you criticize yourself and blame your imperfect personality? “I’m a dummy…so careless. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a klutz?” If you’re willing to forgive others when they make a mistake, why not yourself? The fact is, self-forgiveness can be a great way to cope with stress.
Imagine you’re at a dinner party and you accidentally spill some wine on your host’s beautiful table cloth. A simple accident, right? Or, are you like some people who would be so horrified that they shower themselves with self-recriminations and can’t wait to leave the party? Sometimes it pays to remember that accidents do happen, and self-forgiveness is more appropriate. After all, you didn’t spill the wine intentionally because you dislike the host. [See next week’s post for a discussion of this type of interpretation.]
When it comes to self-forgiveness, it’s unfortunate that psychology – and society, for that matter – generally focuses more on the importance of forgiving others, not yourself. When it comes to resisting the temptation to continually criticize yourself, however, self-forgiveness becomes important because it is a form of self-acceptance. At the dinner party, accept the accident and offer to pay for cleaning. Self-forgiveness will help you avoid inappropriate emotions like guilt, regret, shame, and threats to your self-esteem. Without such forgiveness, you are at risk for concluding it is not the behavior that is wrong or bad, it is you. If you reach this conclusion, it becomes easier for you to decide that you do not deserve happiness and need to be punished. This attitude can lead you away from a willingness to live with vigor, autonomy, and a willingness to face challenges; and lead you toward ambivalence about your competence, neglect of your needs, and low self-respect that can sabotage a productive life.
So, when it comes to self-evaluation when you screw it up, remember: Don’t blow things out of proportion; don’t be quick to assign character flaws to yourself; forgive yourself.