by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac.
I can be really hard on myself. I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out the healthiest way to eat, the best supplements to take, the best ways to exercise, the best ways to meditate, etc. and I’ve felt great when I’ve met my high standards of what I should be doing on a daily basis. But when I’ve fallen off the wagon, I can work myself into a depression over my believed personal failings or—more often—maybe just a steady, low level of neurotic self-judgment.
Ironically, I can even spend days beating up on myself because I’ve been terrible at positive thinking.
Self-analysis and criticism can be just what’s needed in many cases—sometimes I need a kick in the butt from a friend or myself to get myself to shift a pattern I’ve been stuck in for awhile. But too much of that can easily turn into a downward spiral of shame and guilt that stops being productive.
According to a whole slew of spiritual teachers and self-help gurus, the antidote to this problem is some variation on the idea of self-love. The idea is that someone who really loves themself would effortlessly do and say and think all the right things in order to thrive physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Right away it made a lot of sense to me.
But then I ran into a couple problems. First, it often felt inauthentic. It felt like a part of me could tell I was just saying nice things to myself in order to trick myself into getting what I wanted. Obviously, I didn’t really love myself—otherwise I wouldn’t be jumping through all these hoops to try to change myself and convince myself that I love myself.
Second, it didn’t seem like it was working well enough or quickly enough. It’s great that I love myself now, but why can’t I love myself enough to stick to this way of eating or that meditation schedule. Isn’t wallowing in self-pity the reason why I’m not good enough in the first place?
So after years of yo-yoing back and forth between periods of self-love and longer periods of oppressive self-judgment, I’ve come across a couple teachings that have helped me break the impasse.
The first is that it’s helpful to recognize that the self-critical part of myself is trying its hardest to help me. It’s trying to whip myself into shape so that I can get to where I want to go. Moreover, it thinks that if I’m my own harshest critic, maybe I can avoid being criticized and ridiculed by other people.
I discovered that when I had compassion and understanding for the self-critical part of myself—when I stopped invalidating it and threatening its survival—then it seemed to calm down a bit. It’s not enough just to love the nice and idealized and “innocent” parts of myself—I also need to show compassion toward the mean and cranky and wounded parts of myself.
The other thing I realized was that I was trying to run a marathon without first training and building up to it. I would come back from a week of holiday celebrating and indulging and then immediately try to “make up for it” by doing an extreme 30-day cleanse or a radically restrictive food list. That way of doing things had felt good for me and worked for me in the past, but years of “falling off the wagon” and beating up on myself got me to a point where I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere and I needed a different approach.
What I’ve noticed is that the nicer and gentler and more understanding I am on a daily basis, the easier it is for me to make healthier decisions and establish healthier habits. Healthy food and exercise and meditation can all be great for you—but not if you’re trying doing it in an almost punishing or abusive way.
As much as I always want to get to the root a of a problem or find that silver bullet solution, for most people being healthier and happier comes as a result of being nicer to yourself on a daily basis and doing little things that build yourself up.
When you’ve been beating yourself up every day for years and years, it takes some time and practice to re-train your mind to say and believe nicer things. Realizing that—that it’s a process—has made it much easier to cut myself some slack.