“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands.” ~Robert M. Pirsig
Many of us are exploring what it means to be responsible for ourselves, to be creating our own reality. These are concepts that in some situations are easy to grab ahold of; at other times, the meanings are far more elusive.
I’ve seen, in myself and in others, the tendency to beat ourselves up while we are learning what self-empowerment really means. I think this is a natural result of our cultural programming, and it’s understandable that we’d need to work through this type of self-punishment on our quest for understanding.
I used to be an expert at self-blame.
When old relationships ended, I asked myself what I’d done wrong. When I didn’t take advantage an opportunity, I wondered what was wrong with me; why wasn’t I paying more attention? If a friend was acting a bit off, I thought it was me. Had I said something insensitive? Was I talking too much? Was I boring?
I was an excellent over-thinker and a superb finger-pointer, as long as that finger was pointed right back at me.
I rationalized this over-thinking by reminding myself of my desire to be responsible for myself. I was paying attention! I was recognizing my role! I was empowering myself! Doing that required this type of self-questioning!
I knew I was creating my own reality. I felt that if I could not keep things from happening that made me feel uncomfortable (read: sad, mad, confused), then I was failing.
At that time, punishing myself felt like taking responsibility for what was going on. If I blamed myself, it meant I recognized that I was creating the reality. I wasn’t being a victim or pointing the finger at someone else; I was taking on the full load, and man, did I.
I trucked along fairly successfully with that outlook for quite some time. It was certainly stressful, and I spent lots of time making up stories about myself, but it wasn’t affecting me in a negative enough way for me to change it.
That is, until my marriage broke up.
That occurrence marked the beginning of the most stressful time that I’d ever experienced. The internal dialogue was vicious. I felt guilt, and a sense of failure, and a sadness that I’d never experienced before.
That combination of emotions really opened the floodgates to the parts of me that excelled at self-blame.
It was several months into that experience when I realized that all the self-punishment wasn’t helping. I wasn’t feeling any better. If anything, I was feeling worse. The self-blame didn’t feel like healing, or like I was working through the emotion; it felt like quicksand.
Over time, I’ve learned that there is a big difference between being responsible for ourselves and blaming ourselves.
This knowledge didn’t come over night; it was a process that I am still working through. Initially, it can be tough for us to tell the difference between self-punishment and empowerment. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve used to help me drop the habit of self-blame.
1. Re-frame how you question yourself.
We all have patterns, or tendencies, in how we communicate. In a tough situation, there is probably an automatic question or two that you usually ask yourself. When it pops up, write it down. It might be, “What did I do wrong?” or, “Why do I always eff up?”
Ask yourself if you would ask someone you care about the same exact question. Chances are, the answer is no. Let that sink in.
2. Change the question.
How would you ask the question if it was directed at someone else?
Pretend you are playing the role of trusted friend to someone you respect, love, and whom you hold in the highest regard. Would you have more compassion for their experience? Would you want to be supportive? Would you desire to assist them by being able to offer a more detached view? (Spoiler: Yes!)
The new question you ask will depend on the situation. One that fits almost any experience is, simply, “What can I take from this?”
I also like, “What do I want to learn from this?” which can remind us to consider in a more empowering direction. Also, “How do I want this to be different in the future?” can help us to formulate a plan to make that future happen.
3. Now ask yourself that question.
How does your altered question feel? Does it cause you to clench up, or do you begin hearing a litany of crappy internal dialogue? If so, change the question again. Keep changing it until you come up with a version that you’re comfortable hearing, that assists you in actually coming up with an introspective response.
4. Remember, there is not one “right” way; there are just ways of being.
I think many of us believe there is only one right way or one correct path. With this belief, there are many chances to consider that we are wrong or that we’ve failed. This is simply not the case!
There are many ways to do most tasks, just as there are many ways to live our lives. Having a difficult experience doesn’t mean we’ve done anything wrong; it means we are on a tougher road to learning, for the moment.
Opportunities are infinite; our options are boundless, and we always have the power to change our perspective on any life event, large or small.
We have just as much energy for self-compassion and exploration as we do for self-punishment. It’s up to us to direct it.
How do you shift the energy when you realize you’re beating yourself up?
Photo by Daniela Brown