How to Stop Beating Yourself Up Over the Little Things

Woman in a Cage

“You are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” ~Shunryu Suzuki-roshi

A few weeks ago, I had a day that I felt like an utter failure.

I had eaten junk food even though I was trying to get healthy. I’d skipped out on going to the gym for no good reason. I forgot to call my parents even though I promised them I would. I didn’t meet my daily writing goals and ended up watching two movies I’d already seen.

In other words, I slid into a lot of bad habits all at once.

I think we all know the feeling you get after a day like that.

I was spinning out of control, losing hold on everything I’d managed to build so carefully over so many months.

My grip on order felt slippery at best, like trying to catch a determined fish with your bare hands. I remember sitting down on the floor and just crying, full of the shame that comes with letting yourself down.

The worst part? It was the third day in a row I’d felt this way. It was the third in a series of days in which I’d gone to bed feeling like my life was falling apart on my watch.

I felt like the ultimate letdown, consistently messing up something that I knew was in my control. It was my life! Why was I having so much trouble getting a handle on it?

Then I remembered someone long ago who had said to me, “You are perfect just as you are, but you are still growing.”

I don’t remember who said that or in what context this little olive branch was offered to my soul, but like all integral memories, it surfaced at just the right time. I got off the floor, brushed myself off, and said, “I’ll do better tomorrow.”

And I did.

As a writer, I let myself down all the time. I don’t reach my word quota. I watch too much TV when I should be working. I forget my house chores, the gym, the cat. I eat badly because I’m eager to get back to work, or I take a long lunch to procrastinate something important.

But even before I was writing, back when I was in the medical field, I remember that there wasn’t a day that passed where I wouldn’t let myself down in some small way. Forgot to take out the trash. Said something thoughtless or rude. Ate more than my fill.

This wormhole is a tempting one to enter, the I’m-not-good-enough black spiral of thoughts that can suck you in forever. Your brain is always happy to supply an infinite list of reasons that you’re not good enough, smart enough, loving enough, witty enough, pretty enough, and so on.

And if you feed that cycle, fixating on all the tiny ways you failed, then it comes back. You condition your brain to think that you want those thoughts, so it offers more of them.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

What if we all forgave ourselves for the little failures? What if we let go of the tiny mishaps that happen in a day and focus instead on what went well? What if we released the shame and pain of all the ways we didn’t measure up and allowed ourselves to relish in everything we already are?

It’s an old argument, but it bears repeating because it’s a practice that must be rehearsed every day. I know I’m human. I know I’ll fail. I’m not perfect, and that’s part of the beauty of life. I am perfectly imperfect, an exquisite human specimen who’s doing the best with what she’s got.

However, accepting that doesn’t mean we are allowed to stagnate, because we are still improving. We can fail today and aim to do better tomorrow.

We need not feel ashamed or inferior because of slip-ups. All we need to feel is normal, accepting the challenges of a life on this Earth with patience and grace.

Taking it one day at a time, we can always do better tomorrow.

I started focusing on this practice after my meltdown week. Ever since then, I’ve tried focusing on doing the best that I can on a given day.

I give every task my all, give all my love to my friends and family, pour all my energy into whatever I’m doing. And I don’t (or at least try not to) focus on how I fall short. I do the best that I can that day, and when I feel like it didn’t bring me as close to my goal as I wanted it to, I simply say “I’ll do better tomorrow.”

Because that’s all I can do.

In this bustling, high-speed country, I think we all strive for our slice of perfection. We fight for the perfect body, marriage, home, kids, job, etc. without any real idea of what that fight is doing to our psyche.

What’s the point in pursuing perfection if we don’t get to enjoy the journey there? And the shame we gather in not reaching the ludicrously unattainable goals we set for ourselves dulls the bright colors of our life.

This toxic feeling of inadequacy is a poison that will ruin the pleasure of striving for a goal. Not only that, shame will make the pursuit of a goal that much more difficult. Negative reinforcement and mentally beating yourself up will halt any progress in its tracks, and that will only push the spiral deeper.

Fight this venom before it ruins your days.

Self-forgiveness and acceptance are the counter-wind to that inner tornado.

Allowing yourself to be human, perfect as you are, enough will bring you far more joy than focusing on all the ways you are insufficient.

Don’t be ashamed of what you’re not, be joyful in what you are! You are a human being, struggling to be better, but whole and perfect in this moment.

And we’re all right there with you.

Woman in a cage image via Shutterstock

About Audrey Woods

Audrey Woods is a writer living her dream in Boston, MA. After her own tumultuous journey, Audrey strives to help others discover peace, seek their true calling, and live a fully authentic life. She writes young adult fiction and is currently working on her second book. Find out more on her website at or on Twitter at @aawoodswrites.

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  • Bullyinglte

    Audrey, your article is spot on. As I have said many times, there is only one person who will love you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year your whole life…YOU! So, doesn’t it just make sense to treat yourself lovingly?
    But of course, it is not that easy and we are the easiest targets to be hard on. One of my good friends who deals with bi-polar depression helped me out, when I thought I had to achieve perfection all the time. For him, it was a simple saying. CANEI – Constant and Never-ending Improvement. You can stop beating yourself up, once you have nothing to beat yourself up over. Each day can be a new beginning and you can always forgive yourself, for you cannot change the past.

  • Thank you, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. I completely agree. It’s a challenge to love yourself all the time, but a challenge well worth taking on. I think CANE is a very healthy approach. I’ll have to keep it in mind!

    Keep fighting to forgive and love yourself! It’s worth it. 🙂

  • Deebee

    Hi Audrey. That was a great post! I’m having a rough day today and it was just what I needed. You sometimes think you are the only person in the world who feels that way, its nice to know you are not alone 🙂 thank you.

  • I’m so glad I was able to help! I certainly agree, it’s always nice to know that we aren’t alone, no matter what we’re going through. 🙂

  • Ccoby

    This was a great article. I love your concept of not beating ourselves up over the little things because it will eventually consume us. Telling yourself to do better tomorrow is a great concept. I need to work more on doing better the next day because it is one thing to tell myself I will and another thing to do better. I have recently let the small stuff build up and consume me. It has created a negative/angry attitude over time and it has become hard to break out of that.

  • Nick

    Thanks Audrey! I might see a connection here that your falling apart time coincided with a promised call to your parents. All the backsliding behaviors that you mention are simply coping tools for deep pain, not your fault at all. This perfectionist bent of mind is purely parent taught. While lots of people have it, it’s not universal. It’s also not “normal,” though I understand it all too well also. If you’re interested in a resource for this check out Alice Miller’s “Drama of the Gifted Child” … also please take everything I say here with a grain of salt and thanks so much for sharing on this very vulnerable topic.

  • Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And I totally agree, it’s a worthwhile pursuit. I wish you the best of luck in trying to break out of the destructive cycle. Be kind to yourself and live your best life. 🙂

  • That’s a very good point. I’ll for sure check out that book. It does sound like something I’ve struggled with and something that’s affected my life.

    Thank you for sharing and, as always, thanks for reading. 🙂

  • NAtali Cheung

    Thank you so much for sharing this . I been trying so hard to be so perfect for someone i really love. Trying everything i could, that actually it has changed me to become somebody that I’am not. Because I’am too afraid that if i being myself, my loves one will never accept me. But then by the end of the day I’am tired because i always trying to please other but not me. I lead my life with the expectation to make everything perfect, while actually i make it worse for both of us. Nothing feel better in life then just being who you are and being loved for that quality . Namasthe

  • I’m glad you enjoyed the piece! And I can completely relate to that, but perfection is an impossible goal to pursue and will only make you miserable trying to chase it down. Just be yourself in the most authentic way possible and you can live your most fulfilled life. 🙂

  • Thanks Audrey for sharing. I feel that way and since the year started I haven’t been able to get back my focus. i am working on it and I know like you I will get there with consistency. I mess up everyday but is beginning to accept myself as this imperfect but perfectly normal human being.

  • Great thought provoking post. It makes me wonder where the obsession of perfectionism actually came from in our society when it cannot be achieved?!? Especially when perfection to one person may be one thing but it may be a completley another thing to someone else!