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Transforming Self-Criticism: Stop Trying to Fix Yourself and Start Pumping Yourself Up

Depressed Woman

“I define depression as a comparison of your current reality to a fantasy about how you wish your life would be.” ~Dr. John Demartini

I always wanted to do things “right.” I was the little kid at the front of the room, raising her hand for every question. I was great at pushing myself to succeed and please.

My drive to be perfect was an asset through college and law school. I rocked high grades and landed a big firm job right out of school. But that same drive drove me right into a therapist’s office at twenty-five, where I was diagnosed with severe depression.

Then just like any good perfectionist, I drove myself harder to overcome the depression, to be more perfect. I Cookie Monstered personal growth, intensely gobbling up books, lectures, retreats, and coaching.

Have you ever been cruising along, then suddenly realized you’ve been going the wrong way for a while?

When I had suicidal thoughts in my thirties after giving birth to my daughter, my intense drive came to a screeching halt. My desire to be perfect had driven me into a deep and scary postpartum depression.

My thoughts were no longer mine, and for the first time in my life I was afraid of what was happening in my head. Something had to shift.

So I went on a new journey, one designed to find out (for real this time) how to reduce the daily suffering that I knew I was causing myself. What I learned shifted my entire life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me walk you through my journey. Maybe you can discover something about yourself along the way.

To Motivate or To Berate—That is the Question

Like all good journeys, mine starts with a hero (me) and a villain (my inner critic voice). Now, that “little voice” for me was not little at all. It was more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, the mean one with the scary eyes.

One day I decided to turn toward my Mean Marshmallow Man Voice and ask it questions. Why must I be perfect? Why are you always criticizing me?

“Because you’re not perfect.” It said, with a booming voice. “You’re not…” and then it went on to list about 2,000 things that I was failing to do, be, say, or accomplish.

But this time, when I pictured all of these 2,000 things, I started to imagine the person who would actually have done all of those things. Who would this person be, this perfect version of me? Let’s name her Perfect Lauren.

Well, let’s see. Perfect Lauren would never let the clothes on her floor pile up, or the mail go unread. Perfect Lauren wouldn’t spend hours watching The Walking Dead or surfing Facebook. Perfect Lauren would work out every day, in the morning, before work.

Perfect Lauren would eat extremely well and would skip Starbucks, no matter how much she loved Salted Carmel Mochas. Perfect Lauren would have a perfect meditation practice every day.

I saw my entire life flash before my eyes, one long comparison to Perfect Lauren and one long failure to measure up. Did I assume that with enough self-abuse, one day I would become Perfect Lauren? One day I would finally be this fantasy super mom who would always “have it together”?

Suddenly I realized that my immense drive, the one that had allowed me to be so successful, was not a drive toward the happiness I wanted. I was not driving toward anything at all. I was driving away from something.

I drove myself to avoid feeling shame, self-criticism, and self-hate. I drove myself to please the Mean Marshmallow Man Voice. I drove myself to avoid hating myself.

Why do you do things? Do you exercise, eat right, study, or work hard because you love yourself and want good for yourself? Or do you do these things to avoid shame and self-criticism?

I had spent my entire life motivating myself with negativity. And I was now paying the price.

Why It’s Hard to Change

Once I realized how much I compared myself to Perfect Lauren, I tried to stop. It seems simple. Just stop doing it.

But when I tried too hard, I kept getting stuck in this Dr. Seuss-like spiral of hating myself for trying to not hate myself. My former coach used to call that a “double bind,” because you’re screwed either way.

For me to finally learn how to change this, I first had to ask myself…why? And yes, I know that I’m starting to sound like Yoda, but follow me here.

Why did I need to compare myself to Perfect Lauren? Why did it matter? When I pulled at the thread, I found the sad truth.

I compare myself to Perfect Lauren because somewhere deep in my mind I believe that Perfect Lauren gets the love. Real Lauren doesn’t. So I must constantly push myself to be Perfect Lauren, never accepting Real Lauren.

Okay, that sounds ridiculous. When you highlight a belief, sometimes it can look like a big dog with shaved fur, all shriveled and silly. I don’t believe that at all.

I believe the Lauren that leaves clothes on the floor and loses the toothpaste cap deserves love! The Lauren who hates to unload the dishwasher and loses bills in a pile of mail, she deserves love too!

How to Transform Self-Criticism

Have you ever looked endlessly for something and then realized it was sitting right in front of your face? It turns out that the solution to my self-criticism and comparison was actually pretty simple—start loving myself more.

Now loving Real Lauren, with all faults, is not easy. But I’m trying.

Instead of pushing myself with shame, hatred, and self-criticism, I am learning to motivate myself with praise. Instead of threatening myself, I am pumping myself up.

And this has changed everything. I actually get more done using positive motivation. And more importantly, I feel better about what I get done. I’m happier, calmer, and feel more at peace with my life.

If you want to shift your own self-criticism and free yourself from the tyranny of your Mean Marshmallow Man, stop trying to fix yourself and start trying to love yourself.

Here is a practical way to implement this into your life:

The next time you notice that you are criticizing yourself or comparing yourself to Perfect You, stop. Hit the pause button in your head.

Next, say, “Even though I… I love and accept all of myself.” So, for me today, “Even though I shopped on Zulily instead of writing this blog post, I love and accept all of myself.”

Now imagine that you’re giving yourself a hug, internally. Try to generate a feeling of self-compassion.

When you do this regularly, you will start to notice what I noticed. Love and self-compassion can shift even the strongest negative thoughts and emotions and allow you to enjoy more of your life.

And that’s the real goal here, isn’t it? If we keep driving ourselves using self-criticism, we will never be happy, no matter how perfect we are, because we won’t enjoy the process. We won’t enjoy the journey.

I believe that the happiest people in life aren’t the ones with the least baggage. They are just the ones who learned to carry it better so that they can enjoy the ride.

The more we generate self-compassion and love, the easier perfectionism and self-criticism will be to carry. And the easier it will be for us to love and enjoy this beautiful and amazing journey called life.

Depressed woman image via Shutterstock

About Lauren Fire

Lauren Fire is the host of Inspiring Mama, a podcast and blog dedicated to finding solutions to the emotional challenges of motherhood and teaching simple and practical happiness tools to parents. Get her free happiness lesson videos by joining the Treat Yourself Challenge - 10 Days, 10 Ways to Shift from Crappy to Happy.

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  • Lauren,

    Walking dead seems to be everyone’s guilty pleasure! Something which I found helpful was actually teaching your self to realise when something was getting you down. It might sound stupid but when you are stressed, angry or worried a lot of the time you get lost in the strong emotions. I have found just acknowledging your feelings as you go through the day can really help keep on track and help carry the baggage. When you talk about your first time going through depression how did you realise? Sometimes its really head to release how bad you actually are.

    Thanks for a great article!

    Ed

  • Hi Lauren
    I enjoyed reading this. I think a lot of people can relate to your story. Your ambition and desire to be ‘perfect’ netted you many ‘rewards’ that would seem desirable like good grades and a prestigious job,etc… but deep down, it was causing so much pain. I think a big part of our problem is thinking we should be doing certain things or operating with a very narrowly defined definition of what success and happiness mean.

    Like you said, the solution of loving yourself more is quite simple. But, in practice,it can certainly be challenging. We have so much momentum behind the negativity that we get sucked back in very quickly, or we just automatically go there without a second thought. The suggestions you give are good because they help us deliberately shift our focus, which is all we really need to do to start seeing results. The more we focus on the good, the forgiveness and the like, the more the momentum builds behind those thoughts. We can think these better things about ourselves with less effort–these thoughts feel more natural, and when we have our low moments, less far away than they had been previously.

    Great post!

  • Katie Vickers

    This is amazing. I am exactly like you were. I’m constantly thinking Katie, you need to do this, or you need to stop doing that, because otherwise I’m failure. I feel the need for every aspect of my life to be perfect, from my looks to my university grades to my social life. I keep telling myself I can’t be happy until everything is perfect. But it never will be. Thanks for the post 🙂 xoxo

  • Rl

    I don’t love myself and I realized recently that I didn’t. I still can’t understand why I have to but I’m in the process to.

  • Bullyinglte

    The Perfect me is always battling the real me and I have learned that perfection is an imperfect goal. I followed much the same path as you, and always felt I wasn’t succeeding, although my success at work and with my family would speak different.

    I finally had my breakdown at mid-life only to have to learn to pick myself back up, which was a two year journey (very frustrating to a perfectionist who wants to cure themselves). Today it is a blessing to wake every day and I use gratitude for the small things to keep life for me in perspective. I still fall down all the time, I just learned to not beat myself up about it. Thank you for sharing.

  • Amy

    Beautiful! Thanks for sharing your story, Lauren.

  • Lauren Fire

    Thanks Ed! Even though it’s extremely disturbing, I love the Walking Dead! I think it’s because it makes my life look awesome in comparison. I mean, I”m not running from zombies and cannibals! lol I like how you say that you get “lost in strong emotions” because I totally agree. It’s easy to get caught up in them and feel like you ARE the emotion. I think acknowledging them makes me realize that I’m just a person feeling an emotion. That usually lets them move through like a cloud. I think trying too hard to release an emotion can cause the emotion to get worse. What you resist persists. 🙂

  • Thanks Kelli! I totally agree that so many us of get stuck not only in a narrow definition of happiness and success, but in a distorted picture of what we think it should look like. We don’t recognize happiness in the every day and in the mundane. Then all of the sudden life starts to pass us by, while we wait for happiness and success to show up at our door one day. And I agree it’s so easy to get sucked back into negativity. I fight it literally hundreds of times a day. Just saying to myself positive things like “no, I CAN do this” really helps to ward off the negative thoughts. Replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts works much better for me than trying to just stop them. They are illusive buggers!

  • Hi Ri, I think loving yourself is a journey, not really a destination. Like I don’t think one day I will just wake up and go, ok I love myself now, cool. I think it’s a daily practice of replacing negative criticism in my head with positive motivation. In the end, it actually makes me more productive and successful than the other way around. Although in the beginning it can feel like climbing mount everest while trying to knit a sweater. 🙂

  • Thanks Amy! I appreciate you reading it!

  • Thanks Katie! I’ve struggled with this for so many years! Sometimes I think that school and work are set up for this paradigm, self-abuse to get productivity. It feels like it should work. It helped me to realize that there is no such thing as failure. There is only feedback. If at first it doesn’t work, try a different approach. Get strategic instead of angry at yourself. In the end I think it makes you more successful anyway! 🙂

  • Wonderful comment Bullyinglte! I love “perfection is an imperfect goal.” My hubby always says that perfect is the enemy of good. I’m sorry you had a breakdown, that sounds painful, especially as a perfectionist. We can get caught in whilrpools of shame and self-loathing if we’re not careful. I love that you transformed it into beauty in your life and gratitude. Bravo! I think we will always still fall down, it’s not about not falling down. it’s about picking yourself back up and going on. My qigong teacher has this little story that I Iove: “A man walks down the street and falls into a hole. The next day, the man walks down the same street, sees the hole, and falls in again. The next day, the man walks down the street, sees the hold, and walks around the it…but then falls in another one.” There will always be more holes. We just have to enjoy the walk and stop fretting about falling in. 🙂

  • I know, it’s so good! I do occasionally find myself envying a more simple life, but that makes me realize that the crap I worry about beyond survival is prob not worth worrying about! So I think in that way, The Walking Dead is transformational. 🙂 At least that’s what I tell myself so I feel productive watching it. Great reference on the Search Inside Yourself site – I’m totally going to check that out. I love awareness instruction, it’s so interesting. It’s like an onion you keep peeling, but you never get to the end. It just keep peeling off more and more. Fun stuff!

  • 4G

    Thank you, Lauren, for this post.
    For me, the “mean marshmallow man’s” voice often turns out to be the voice of a critical authority figure from the past – most often parents . . . . 🙁 It’s usually good to be able to “view” this voice from a more objective perspective than “just yourself”.

  • mia

    Growing up we are usually not accepted for being the imperfect human child that we all are..’perfectly imperfect’…so we take on ‘roles’ that we perceive will give us the love and approval that we need to survive in our family, eg. Perfectionist, caretaker. Unfortunately we begin to believe this role is who we are and we forget that we are okay to make mistakes, not always do what society/parents think we should in order to be a worthwhile human being. Sad but this is the reality of life on this planet at the moment but posts like this are helping us to understand and heal these self critical beliefs. Great post…thank you x

  • gaurav

    Thanx a lot Lauren..
    This angle of self criticism I never thought..

  • Ellsha Bamboet

    thank you for this post Lauren. I have struggle for many years just to be perfect. I can’t enjoy my life. I can’t find peace in my heart. I want to be who I am not a ” perfect ” person. after read this post. I realize that I don’t have to be perfect. I am perfect with all my flaws. ‘change is so hard but I will keep try. 🙂

  • this, is… like i’m passing now… i feel like i can’t stop my voice.. and and sometimes it gets worst… at the point it starts to yelling or :/ swear me (i don’t know if its write correctly, sorry), telling me that i’m not good, or i’m a fool, that i have to do it better “perfect”. i’m trying to put myself together… but, its difficult..
    Thanks for sharing this text.really, than you.

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  • Great analogy with the onion! I guess humans are bit like ogres as well (Shrek reference)

  • Alicia Couceiro

    This was a wonderful article and hit very close to home for me. After reading this article I asked myself why I too am always striving for perfection. Who am I trying to impress? What I realized I am already lovable the way I am..actually my family prefers non perfect me. Perfect me is always stressed always busy. This article made me realize this. Thank you. I just had another baby recently so I’ve had to let go some of my perfectionism so I have a little motto I repeat “imperfect is the new perfect”. I’m beginning to realize I am perfect with all my imperfections 🙂 Thank you again.

  • Carlie

    Wonderful post! Thank you very much for sharing your story and your ways to deal with the mean marshmallow man. I have struggled with this for a long time and am learning that I am enough, just as I am =)

  • Oh, to love each and every part of ourselves… 🙂

  • PhoenixRising4O

    I believe that the happiest people in life aren’t the ones with the least baggage. They are just the ones who learned to carry it better so that they can enjoy the ride… This really helped me tonight thank you. I just turned 60 overnight! Everything came crashing down at once. I have always been the family caretaker. I just can’t do it anymore. I need to take care of ME right now and not feel guilty! I am trying hard to come out of depression and feelings of failure which are literally making me sick… It’s time to start all over again. Please send energy & Peace

  • Shanker

    Very Interesting. Worthy of mulling it over!

  • I love your gutsy languaging in describing your journey to self-worth from the perfect Lauren! You are one mean mother of a writer! One big problem for me–how does one create the awareness of when it is time to “push the pause button”. Is there some way to practice this before those big negative emotional experiences quickly suck me in?

  • Makayla

    I recently realized I am trying to be that girl everyone wants to be. The one who has the nice body, hair, success, money…the one who seems to have no problems. Though all I have been causing myself is problems.
    I wrote down several lines from this post in my quote book. I understand these feelings all too well.
    When we aren’t constantly trying to BE happy, and just be, that’s when the happiness arrives. Not in the midst of trying to be another version of someone else that I think is perfection.

  • Mike

    I just picked up this blog as I have been feeling pretty low and, clicked through on Eds link. I have told people about SIYLI before. Its great. I wish I had remembered about it sooner,but glad I found it today. It made me realise that I should use my energy to be focused on being me and stop thinking so hard about perfection. I’m really worried about is the fear of failing as I want to be perfect, but its not useful. Its wasted energy and being mindful helps you align to being who you are an not over processing your thoughts which will often helps realise more positive outcomes.

  • Mike,

    I am really glad you had a look at SIYLI. I spend most of my time working with young driven professionals who want to succeed and I have been through that myself. The biggest problem with the perfection mentality is you actually build up so much fear you take no action. I occasionally get this if I am having a freak out with my company or something isn’t moving. The best solution that I have found is to breath and submerge yourself in building something. I remember listening to Leo who built Zen habits and he said if he got distracted he would breath and just let it pass. observe and relax.

    If you need someone to chat to feel free to drop me an email. Maybe I can help you!

    Ed

  • colourmegreen

    This has come at a very good time. Almost odd yet needed. I got diagnosed with tourettes syndrome at a very young age, along with ADD, anxiety etc.. Growing up I never saw myself as smart, only because I had a harder time understanding things than a normal person should, I always had to ask questions over and over again until the person would get frustrated in order to make sure I understood. I also labeled myself as “stupid” because I was and never will be good at math, which is completely irrelevant because Im good at so many other things, but I thought, because I’m not good at that, I’m not good at anything. As I got older I let it define me, and being bullied never helped. I’ve let a lot of what media, society and everyone around me have said, define me. Ive let it all define me to the point where I don’t understand why anyone would love me? I don’t even love myself. I have an amazing boyfriend, amazing family, why can’t I just be? Why am I striving to be so perfect when perfection doesn’t exist? Its because I’ve been living off of the things I’ve been telling myself rather than what everyone around me is telling me. Sometimes its hard to accept what everyone says when ive created this cycle for myself so long ago. I’ve been blowing up my mind of what I should be in order for my boyfriend to love me more, think I’m cooler, for us to have more in common. In the end, isn’t that just considered being fake? I’m trying to the all these things based on how people judged me growing up, or the negative things I’ve told myself. Its hard, it really is, I’ve cried and cried and wondered why do I have to be going through this? Bless you and bless this website for helping through whatever quest I’m on. I know what I’m doing to myself but I just can’t take my own advice. All I know is that I’ve been missing out on truly being myself, which people seem to love.. So I’m going to try and stick with that from now on. Xo

  • Mort

    If only just thinking “actually, I don’t hate myself! I actually love myself for all the reasons that I normally say I hate myself!” was

    1) as easy done as said

    2) actually at all helpful – instead, it just feels like I’m lying to myself.

  • ReeAsh

    Thanks Lauren. I’d never looked at my obsession with perfectionism as an escape from feeling shame etc. Your post was an absolute eye opener. I second Katie’s thoughts – i need for all areas of my life to be functioning perfectly [including my son’s grades], to be happy, to treat myself to a holiday or to even enjoy a simple weekend. I need to work on this. Thanks for this brilliant post.

  • Mollie Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for posting this. I do not usually comment on blogs but your story is so similar to mine.. Those are some great strategies that you have shared and I hope to see some positive results from them. It’s amazing how easily we can criticize ourselves without even noticing. I criticize myself so much, that I can’t even tell the difference with other thoughts. It’s very overwhelming and draining.

    Thank you again for your story and I hope all is well with you now. You have truly given me hope and inspiration.

  • cobi

    What a great read.I realized last night driving home after one of the worst episodes I ever had that I am in an abusive relationship. I consider myself a pretty strong women and wouldn’t take or condone this behaviour from anyone else so why do I take it from myself. Why am I in an abusive relationship with myself?! There are so many truths in this article. Thank you Lauren.

  • Nothingz5

    Apparently the Real Lauren also has a great sense of humour which Perfect Lauren might not have had given how perfect everything [i]needed[/i] to be!

  • Just wondering

    This may be nine months late but what I’m thinking to myself is part of self-compassion and loving yourself is to do so unconditionally. Having a reason to answer your “Why?” is to love yourself only based on a certain condition.

  • sara a

    before, i was problem free. i felt like i was perfect enough and i never needed to push myself into becoming perfect. when my life started going downhill, i started critisizing myself to become perfect. i became the center to my own critisism. one day i asked myself why am i critisizing myself so much. the answer was that i was a problem that needed to be fixed. its so stupid, i kept telling myself that i was never a problem before shit happened, and now that it’s happened i became a problem? and the shit is over now, so im supposed to be over critisizing myself, but it never fucking stopped. i feel l ike a whole different person now, critisizing my way in life and making myself fall deeper into misery. and then i asked myself..why am i trying so hard to fix myself? and i thought that it will make me happy. but i know that it never made me happy. critisizing myself and pushing myself to become perfect made me fucking miserable. i believex that i was a problem, and if i fixed myself, then the problems in my life would be fixed as well. its fucking pathetic and i cant understand why i’ve never realized this in myself before. i let my stupid inner voice to me through hating myself. wtf. fuck, im done ranting. im gonna take a glue gun now and try to glue myself back together.

  • Mary

    Thank you so much for writing this, Lauren. I am also a high-achiever that has suffered depression as an adult. When I entered graduate school, my negative motivation tactics quit working. Now I can appreciate that that was a good thing. It forced me to take care of myself more. I’m still struggling with self-criticism. Today I was particularly upset about being rejected from some jobs I had applied to. But this article reminded me that loving myself and recognizing what I am doing right in the search will motivate me to continue (whereas criticizing myself for all things I might have done wrong, real and imagined, was making me want to give up). Sending good thoughts to you and everyone at tinybuddha.

  • Joyce Ling

    I realized pretty recently how much my self-criticism hurts me. This month, I defended my honors thesis and received the second-highest designation, magna cum laude. I should have been excited, like everyone else who got this designation. Yet, all I could see in my head were the imaginary disappointed looks of my family when I told them that once again, I ended up second best. I couldn’t even recognize my accomplishments for what they were, only the failure of not being the best. And that frustrated me even more, realizing that I couldn’t be proud of my own accomplishments, frustrated that I should “know better” than this. So it’s nice to read this post and feel like I’m understood and that I have a chance at learning to love myself, no matter how bad it can get.

  • Rae

    Fantastic post, I am 25 and I find myself doing exactly this always trying to be the perfect version of myself and then hating myself when I don’t achieve something. Starting to realize that nothing you do will ever be perfect and I’m slowly treating myself with love and compassion, long hard journey but defiantly a better one.
    Thanks for the post. 🙂