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Kofi Baah

You Don't Need To Give Yourself a Hard Time

Self-criticism after mistakes is unhelpful; instead, learn from them by approaching yourself with curiosity.

Most of us have had the experience of making a mistake and immediately being hard on ourselves. This is never useful, because you don’t learn from mistakes by criticizing yourself.

Criticism is useful from other people, as they actually need to explain what you did wrong. But self-criticism is as useful for learning from mistakes as thinking about your tennis swing in the middle of a match. Both just disrupt the natural process.

Learning from mistakes happens by adopting new behaviors. Adopting new behaviors requires accepting that your previous behaviors were incorrect, which can be emotionally challenging. To do it well, you need to feel safe enough to admit this to yourself. This is difficult if your mind is a hostile place, so you’re always better off approaching yourself with compassion and curiosity. With some work, “you idiot…how did you let this happen?” can turn into “interesting…what led to this? How do I feel about it? What can I learn about myself?” There are no downsides to changing your response in this way.

You learn to improve your relationship with yourself by understanding how your mind works. You gain this understanding by observing your mental processes. As you pay more attention to your mind over time, your first-person perspective becomes more spacious and shifts towards a higher-order vantage point, allowing you to view mental processes as part of a broader landscape rather than becoming “stuck” in specific thoughts or emotions. Over time, you become aware of patterns of thought that occur in particular situations. Once you recognize that a specific thought is part of a pattern, it carries less emotional weight.

You can anticipate the pattern and choose how to respond when it arises. For example, you have an important meeting, and you’re late. Again. You know that you’re about to start an internal monologue - you’ll frustratedly insult yourself once or twice, and then compare yourself to your organized friend. You’ll have a memory of your parent’s lectures from your childhood, and then wonder if there’s something wrong with you that you should get checked out. This usually lasts a couple of minutes, and then you’ll start thinking about something else.

You now have a choice.

Let the pattern run its course. Pay close attention to it to try and further your understanding, or let it go on in the background while you pay attention to something else.

Gently disengage. Think about something more practical (like how you’ll apologize to the person you’re meeting) or think about something else entirely.

This understanding stops you from being at odds with yourself. In the first option, despite your thoughts being hostile, your relationship to yourself remained compassionate. In the second option, you skipped the hostile thoughts altogether. The alternative would have been to let the pattern go unchecked, leading to unnecessary additional negative emotion, or even to a reinforcing cycle of being hard on yourself for being hard on yourself.

Acknowledging your mistakes without being hard on yourself doesn’t mean avoiding responsibility. Your mistakes have real-world consequences, and it’s natural to feel regret or disappointment about the outcomes. You just don’t need to make yourself feel worse.

Thanks to Michael Ashcroft for reading a draft of this.