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How to Stop Beating Yourself Up Over Mistakes

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~Buddha

I have just eaten enough pizza to satisfy three people and I’m feeling awful for having done it. Awful because my stomach can only hold so much, awful because I know I’m going to pay for eating it (dairy and I have a difficult relationship), and awful because I know I shouldn’t have done it.

This is what my internal monologue looks like:

Me: I feel so sick.
Inner Me: You shouldn’t have eaten so much then!

Me: I know but I really fancied it and I hate wasting food.
Inner Me: You always do this, you know that?

Me: I thought I could do it differently this time.
Inner Me: What, you mean not gorge? We spoke about this, Sam. We spoke about how the last time really was the last time.

Me: I know… I kind of caved though.
Inner Me: You lack discipline; you need to be stricter with yourself.

I could go on for ages, but you get the idea.

Everyone has that voice inside of them that might berate them for less than wise choices: that unnecessary new sweater (to join all your others); the new phone (even though the one you have now works perfectly); staying up late to finish work (that could have been done earlier in the day if only you hadn’t spent the afternoon catching up with your favorite TV series).

A lot of people let this voice get the better of them. They let it get out of control to the point where, instead of being a good moral compass, it becomes a guilt-tripper of tyrannical proportions. It harms instead of helps. But why do we let this happen?

My yoga instructor explained to me, after I commented on her amazing ability to take sudden changes and annoyances in her stride and with a smile, that there are two levels on which we exist.

The first is the one where we are right now—you and me, as we read this; existence. I’m stuffed and ready to pass out; you might be avoiding emails and reading this on the sly at work. Things could be a little better—I could be not so stuffed, you could not have a heap of annoying emails—but we’re here and we’re okay.

The second level meanwhile, towers above us. This level is the lofty realm of expectation. It’s not a bad place; a lot of our goals and dreams are up here, and when we reach them with the help of ladders or loved ones lifting us, we can touch those aspirations, make them our own.

Unfortunately there’s a pile of rubbish stored up here too: suggestions, comments, recommendations, and lectures that we’ve collected throughout our lives.

Most, however, are subliminal standards spouted by people or groups who believe they know how best to live. And we sometimes compound our stress and remorse by dwelling on everything we think we should do.

Take for example my pizza dilemma.

I love pizza, I really do. But I feel so guilty every time I eat it (even if I don’t overeat) because:

  • I’ve spent money that could have been put to good use elsewhere.
  • It’s unhealthy. (Unless you eat home-grown, organic foods, a lot of the food we eat is unhealthy, being packed with sugars, salts, and preservatives)
  • It’s not helping with my weight. (Society generally promotes one uniform body shape, distinct for each sex, and any aberration is an abomination.)

The gap between level one, our present self, and level two, the domineering arena of social and cultural “standards” will never be closed.

Even if we make very few mistakes, we’ll still have some imperfections that we could address.

So what can we do? We can start reorienting our thinking.

Step #1: Be good to yourself.

It’s no good trying to fight against something you’ve just done when you’re feeling bad about it. Give yourself time to calm down and regain your composure. Basically, let go and chill out.

So I’ve binged and now I feel uncomfortable. I need to relax and let my body digest. Water is essential for digestion so I need to drink that, a few sips at a time. I also need to remove the last of the pizza from view, which means putting it in the bin.

Step #2: Acknowledge what caused you to do what you did.

I need to acknowledge why I binge. Pizza isn’t my only vice, after all. I comfort eat when I’m unhappy or stressed, and I have intense cravings that go beyond “I fancy a couple of biscuits with my tea.”

This step requires a hefty amount of honesty on your part. Pretending a problem isn’t there will not help you move past it. But in the process of admitting a problem, whether it’s with over-eating or over-spending, be nice to yourself.

Step #3: Start small to address the problem.

My yoga instructor explained that severe cravings are a form of perversion; when our bodies lack some form of goodness or nutrition, the opposite version of that lack becomes magnified, creating these enormous, unruly cravings.

I need to address my lack in order to balance myself, which means eating more in the way of leafy greens, full of protein, and nature’s goodness.

Immediate action can be applied to any circumstance where you feel out of control. If you over-spend, set a generous but reasonable budget and stick to it; if you suck at saying “no” to people, practice in front of the mirror, maybe do it over the phone to start and then branch out the more confident you become.

The point is to make a small change and grow into the space that change creates.

Step #4: Confront your expectations.

I’ve put in place new approaches that are helping me to feed and stretch my body, and settle my mind, so I’m in a good place to stand up to the nagging thoughts that bring me down.

Money-wise, yes I could have used that cash on something more useful, but you know what? I order a pizza once a month at the most. It’s my treat. I pay my bills and my debts, and I put a small amount away each month for a rainy day, so I’ll spend my ten pounds on what I want.

Health-wise, I’m a vegetarian. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I don’t eat much in the way of refined sugars or fatty foods. I eat plenty of fruits and root vegetables, and healthy portions of nuts and fiber-packed nibbles.

Weight-wise, I’m doing alright. I lost almost 30 pounds in just less than two years, slowly and healthily. I’ve put about 7 pounds back on courtesy of Christmas, but I’m now cutting back. So I don’t resemble a wafer; so I don’t fit a BMI graph. I look just fine.

The point of this step isn’t to rationalize unhealthy choices; it’s to think of all the good things you may not consider when you’re being hard on yourself over one arguably bad decision. It may not be that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

Step #5: Love yourself.

This is probably the hardest step. I’m not quite there myself yet but I’m working on it, like a lot of people in the world. Maybe you’re working on it now but thinking it’ll never happen.

Standing in front of my mirror saying “I love you” makes me laugh because it feels so stupid. That nagging voice says it’s stupid but, really, it’s not. It’s very sensible.

How can I follow through on any of the other steps if I don’t respect and care for myself? How can I love others if I have no love for myself? Loving yourself is one of the best things you can do.

Before I go to bed, as I brush my teeth, I’m going to look right into my hazel eyes and mentally say to myself “I love you. The pizza was a bit of an indulgence but you’re over it now. You’re taking positive steps to change and that is quite awesome.”

Love yourself, even if you have some less-than-ideal habits. You can only overcome these if you stop kicking yourself when you’re down. Instead, give yourself a hug and get up. Keep moving.

Whatever you tend to punish yourself over, you can apply these steps. Perseverance is the trick, but if you’re having a hard time, it’s worth taking the ultimate risk and opening your heart to another, like a friend, a family member, a mentor, or even a professional.

The point is, you can turn this painful situation around and be free of it. You just have to start with you.

Photo by Lel4nd

Avatar of Sam Russell

About Sam Russell

Sam Russell is a young writer from the southeastern corner of the UK. He’s a cynic by nature trying to prove that cynics can be happy and positive, too. Visit his blog at http://cackhanded.wordpress.com/.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • tarantularex

    that just made me want to eat a lot of pizza

  • http://twitter.com/tonyfahkry Tony Fahkry

    Good article Sam. The take-away point is to be kind and patient with oneself. In doing so, we ease the pressure that we need to act, feel or think a certain way. Instead we allow our authentic nature to emerge like a light piercing through a small crack. This authenticity does not require validation nor confrontation – it just IS. Thank you!

  • http://unswampedlife.com/ Kristoph M

    I think the “love yourself” part is soo important. In my own experience, once I embraced that, I began to look at my mistakes in an empowering way. I now see them as guiding signs to change something about myself or the way I view a something. -Kristoph

  • Nerak

    Thank you. I needed this today.

  • Elizabeth

    I always say that Tiny Buddha is in sync with my life…and today is no exception.  Yesterday at the grocery store I bought a box of mini-crumb donuts and ate the entire box as I shopped and on the way home from the store.  I didn’t let my husband know I had done it.  I did it in secret and still feel so much shame about it; my stomach still hurts over it…and I am so disappointed in myself. 

    I appreciate this post because it lets me know that there are others out there that struggle with the same things I do – but I’m struggling with figuring out the WHY?  Why do I do this to myself ALL THE TIME!  I have yo-yo’d with my weight my entire life.  I know what I SHOULD do…but something that I cannot control happens and I do things to myself that I know are harmful. 

    The lack of control I feel over this lately is beginning to really frighten me.  I work out regularly, and eat healthy most of the day – but night time and weekends are the times when I gorge on foods that I know aren’t good for me and I know will make me feel terrible. So I am not obese or anything but I could  stand to lose a few pounds and with as active and healthy I am most of the time I should weigh less…but alas my binging prevents me from showing any progress ever!

    How do I find out WHY I do this?  Any thoughts would be much appreciated and thank you to Sam for your honesty and vulnerability.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001642911068 Jen Nguyen

    Great piece. I’m still working on loving myself more as well, and to stop being hard on myself. I have a horrible habit of overthinking things, thinking about what I SHOULD HAVE done, then feel like I’m forever doomed because I made a (tiny) mistake.

    What helps me work with trying to be nicer to myself is, I think of myself as a separate person. I remind myself that I would NEVER treat someone else the way I treat myself, nor should I ever do so (considering I’ve done more than enough damage to myself throughout the years).

    It’s like, how would YOU feel if you berated someone so close to you for some tiny mistake they made, like eating more than they should have? Sounds outrageous to be that way towards someone, but.. you get the point lol.

    Again, great piece.

  • Jayme

    Love It!  We are so hard on ourselves sometimes and even harder on others because of it!  Great Article!  I’m saving this as my fav!  :-)  

  • Deborah

    perfect! I needed this…after caving into fear with my sister-in-law this weekend and not putting forth my authentic self and saying what was true for me…
    and then spent a good portion of yesterday evening listening to my inner self point out all my flaws…
    thanks for this :D

  • http://www.theworld4realz.com/ Andi-Roo

    You just made me go back & re-read my list of Personal Commandments, #9 of which is “Speak as gently to others as you would to a child. Speak as gently to yourself as you should to others.” 

    I tend toward harshness when it comes to self-judgment, so thank you for the kind reminder to “chill out”. More of my Personal Mantras can be read here (The first one on the list is my fav: “Happy is a choice, so pick it & get there.”)  http://www.theworld4realz.com/2012/02/24/personal-commandments/ 
    Andi-Roo
    /// @theworld4realz

  • Nixa

    James Baraz at a recent dharma talk posed the question: what would you do if you met someone who got all your jokes, knew your whole life story and understood everything about you? Wouldn’t that person be your instant best friend for life? Wow. Why do I keep looking for others to be that friend to me when I am right here right now ?

    Love the post! Printed it out and it’s now on my wall as a gentle reminder to keep on keeping on. Grateful to you all.

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose Alannah Rose

    Great thoughts here – all of your steps are true & helpful as well.  One thing that helps me when I’ve done something I want to beat myself up over is to remember every moment is a “new start”.  I don’t go down the path of “Why do I ALWAYS do this?” in my head, or let myself count how many times I’ve ‘messed up’ - instead I try to think, “Okay, I did that, and I want to try not to do that next time.  I am starting over right now.”  It’s such a transformative thing to realize that every moment is a new start.  We get a billion of them, too!

    I always enjoy your pieces on Tiny Buddha!  Best to you.

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose Alannah Rose

    I hope you don’t mind me giving my thoughts on this.  I can relate to what you’re dealing with.  I was a Weight Watchers member for years (I joined in ’07 when I wanted to lose about 30 pounds & kept my membership until this year) and it taught me a lot about thinking before I eat.  There are so many reasons we all eat… you have to figure out what your triggers are.  Emotions are a big one, and boredom.  Wanting to “punish” yourself, feeling deprived, angry, sad or even happy are all reasons that sometimes make people eat.  Sometimes just being in a situation can do it… sitting in front of the tv, being in the car, sitting at your desk at work, having a cigarette.  If you have habits that involve doing the same things on most days, you need to look at those.  For me, some of it was just laziness/thoughtlessness.  If something was in front of me, I would likely eat it.  I was at a restaurant and they asked me if I wanted fries, I just said yes.  There was no stopping first to think, “how could I make a better choice?” or even “am I really hungry?”.  With practice, I learned to determine when I was eating out of boredom, habit or to “fill a void” (as I like to call it).  One good gauge I learned from WW is, if I feel hungry and I’ve eaten fairly recently, I ask myself if I’m hungry enough to eat an apple.  Usually the answer is no, and I know I am not actually hungry. Apples are pretty filling!

    You also have to help yourself by not keeping “trigger foods” in the house (those things you know you just can’t stop yourself with after you start eating them), pre-sorting things into correct portions (chips, crackers, cookies, nuts) and keeping healthy alternatives around.  Also, don’t completely deprive yourself or tell yourself you can’t ever have something.  Everything in moderation is fine, you just have to “budget it in”.  I can’t have fries with every meal – most of the time I need to get a salad instead. If I have something like fries, then I know I shouldn’t have dessert later and I’ll have fruit instead. I just try to balance it out. There’s room for everything, but not all on the same day.

    I obviously don’t know your situation, but speaking from my experience, I really feel like if there are emotional issues behind your eating habits, until they are addressed then there’s only so much you can do to help yourself.  If there aren’t emotional issues then it’s just a matter of breaking habits/learning alternatives which just need to be practiced.

    Good thoughts to you!

  • Rebecca Johnston

    I just ate my very first Whopper whilst forgiving myself out loud for making mistakes in college, in location afterward, with my family, in first marriage, with finances, and mostly for sham of “soulmate” remarriage and where it left me. I am full of grease and the knowledge that I CAN CREATE A GREAT LIFE FROM HERE.

  • Friend of Bill

    Have u thought about OA- Overeaters Anonymous.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. Tonight I’m going to examine my evening habits and any triggers. Maybe just working harder to be more aware is how I should approach this. Thank you for a new perspective.

    I had time today to give myself some credit for things that I do that are good for me…like running, yoga, surfing, meditation. I need to remember these things, too.

  • Erica

    Hi Elizabeth, I’m at work so not able to give as full a comment as I’d like :) The suggestions above are great. You might also want to look up binge eating disorder and do a little research on it. I’m not implying that you have it, but based on what you described it’s a possibility, as I have been “recovered” (always a work in progress) from the disorder for a couple years now and have experienced everything you mentioned. There are lots of great resources you can turn to for encouragement and advice on this topic (or just overeating in general)..check out some of the posts at healthygirl.org and books like Food The Good Girls Drug by Sunny Sea Gold or anything by Geneen Roth. And remember, mindfulness is huge. Stop and think for 2 seconds before you eat about what you’re going through right now, why you want to eat this, if there’s something else you could do that might be just as comforting, etc. Even if you still eat whatever it is after you’ve thought about it, you’ve just actually done something GREAT by THINKING about what’s going on (instead of stuffing the thoughts and feelings down so that all you’ll be able to focus on afterwards is how full you are. Food used to be my emotional novacaine). Just getting in the habit of doing that can get you on the road to not overeating. Best of luck hun! Each moment is a new opportunity to treat yourself kinder and get healthier. Progress over perfection!! xoxoxo

  • http://auntannieschildcare.blogspot.com.au/ Aunt Annie

    For those of you who are focussing on the eating issues rather than the self-expectation issues, I suggest you get hold of a copy of “Fat is a Feminist Issue” by Susie Orbach. I read it about 30 years ago and it really changed my whole perspective about eating issues- some of her insights are timeless. She was talking about inner judges, unrealistic expectations and fear of food long before it became fashionable.

  • anon

    Sam, loved your post.  I keep beating myself up for believing in love after having been married to a narcissist for 23 years and working to recover.  My kids (grown) worship him and his manipulation (which took me a long time to wake up to) and how he got my life savings in the divorce. 

    I’m trying to forgive myself for loving someone who used me (and learn how not to make the mistake again) but I’m not sure how to do that.  When I figure out the lesson from 1/2 a lifetime of verbal abuse and poor treatment, I think I could move forward. I love the person I am and cannot figure out how I let such abuse happen to me.

    Thanks for sharing your post.

  • fabact

    wow – I’m going to practice saying “I love you” to myself every night before going to  (hope I remember!) – sort of the way I would say it to a partner or child. that’s great advice. THNX

  • Lainey

    Wonderful post!

  • richard

    Thankyou for this – I’ve been beating myself up at work over some mistakes I have made recently … under a lot of stress generally. This helps.

  • anon

    I don’t know why, but after reading this I broke into tears. I just came to the realization that so many things that I spend my life judging myself about are so insignificant compared to a good life.

  • Lucy

    I just wanted to say thank you – this improved my day :)

  • skopp888

    “…reading this on the sly at work” – Ha! Busted…

  • Steve1950

    Jen, your reply is as good as the article……..better even for me. I am going to print out your response and keep it with me.and whenever I start belittling myself, I will take it out and read it. Steve stevemthealthy@hotmail.com

  • jesushchrist

    You know, pizza isn’t a bad thing, have it in moderation. Like for me right now, pizza would be a treat since I haven’t had pizza in a long time,. Be reasonable with yourself though, you’re aware that pizza isn’t made of easily digestible components like bread and cheese, so of course you stop yourself at one or two slices. Well, anyway don’t feel bad, you can always start again and again.. and again on your newfound let’s-not-make- pizza-the-whole- meal diet.

  • yesica

    It’s hard to find anyone who does not know closely suffering, either
    because they fall on it at certain times or stages of life or because they live
    deep in the pain of a permanent basis. And the amazing thing is that one is
    unknowingly who begets and nourishes within himself suffering.

    In pain, in this experience to the surface of our own inability, we see
    clearly that in our lives something is wrong, and we suspect that there was
    another way to live completely different, in which the psychological pain does
    not exist. And when we reach this point we realize that we lack certain
    knowledge that life to glimpse new and different reality.

    Here, I suggest this video to help you superstructures for you and
    solve your problems today.

    http://tinyurl.com/qxglhyy

  • Time

    I feel better after reading this because you always think that your going through things by yourself in life, and by just listening it helps me to cope with the difficulties that I face each day in my life and it gave me helpful tips to practice on an everyday basis so I don’t get so frustrated at myself or at my life. Thanks, I found this very inspirational!

  • Thinkb4youspeak

    Sam this was a great article, as I needed to read something this morning. It helped me realize that the replaying of scenarios I do stems from coming from a critical background. This just reminds me that I am not the only in having this experience and that I need to be more gentle with myself. The inner child comes up and I just need to love him daily.

  • Bearpie

    I came to tears too.

  • Elaine

    I’m having difficulties with this. It’s always tied to when I accidentally do something bad that would inconvenience other people. IE I ruin a frying pan that my bf could have used since we JUST moved in, or I spilled tea EVERYWHERE when I could have just looked before I put the thing down… And instead of just going “oops. I’ll clean this up.” I berate myself to the point of feeling worthless because I inconvenienced others rather than just myself. I hate disappointing people.

    And when I make a mistake, I feel like I am disappointing people. I have been taught from a young age that making a mistake, even if it’s an accident (especially so it feels) that I should be SCOLDED and punished in some way (non violent) because I should have known better. I have been trying really hard to stop it, but it’s so hard when it’s been something I’ve grown up with.

  • Only Human

    Thanks for this post. I’m an 18-year-old who caused a car accident for the first time a few hours ago (if you’re wondering, it wasn’t anything major – no one was hurt.) This post helped me a lot, so thank you very much.