Have you ever had a friend accomplish something that was hard, maybe even noble or courageous, and they do it with admirable skill? Let’s say they have just given a public presentation, and you were there to watch. The audience loved it, you loved it, you were proud of your friend. They reached the audience, and you were moved. You have seen other speakers who were real clunkers, and you know that you just experienced a master at work.
And have you ever talked to this friend afterward and all they could talk about was how unhappy they were with how it went? “I missed my most important point!” they say. “I talked too fast!” “I couldn’t find my notes!” “Oh man, I forgot what I was supposed to say… how humiliating!” They list off why, contrary to your and everyone else in the room’s experience, they have just bombed. And no matter what you say to them in response, they are completely certain that the whole event was a fiasco as colossally unfortunate as the sinking of the Titanic. “But you did so well!” you say. They will have none of it.
They have accused, tried, and sentenced themselves in a court of one: their own mind.
Have you ever seen this happen to someone you cared about? Ever done this yourself?
In this world, we often talk about how we don’t want others to judge us. “Don’t judge me!” we say in righteous indignation. We talk about how we need to be kind to each other, learn to get along, and recognize our common humanity. We hope that others will do the same for us. No one likes to feel the daggers of someone else’s disapproval.
Yet what we don’t always address is the fact that sometimes, perhaps often, perhaps even most of the time, perhaps always, the person who is most judgmental of us… is ourselves.
Your mental attitude about yourself is extremely powerful. After all, you have to live with your own head. Day after day, 24/7, rain or shine, 365 days a year. And how you feel about yourself will determine your experience to a large extent. Judging yourself too harshly can make it harder to enjoy life.
Certainly I think a healthy amount of self examination can be helpful. I’m not talking about that. I’m saying that an uncontrolled tendency to make ourselves wrong for every little thing (or every imagined little thing) can interfere with leading a happy life. How can you confidently go forward to new challenges and adventures when you are there shooting yourself in the foot constantly for everything you imagined you did wrong in the past? How can you acknowledge your previous accomplishments if they are laced with feelings of guilt or disappointment caused by your own self-judgment? Those infernal “yeah buts…” can keep us trapped in a cycle of dissatisfaction and feeling incomplete about our experiences. As in, “Yeah, I did just run a marathon… but I didn’t eat enough Tibetan goat meat like I knew I should the day before, so clearly I messed the whole thing up.” Or: “Yeah, I did study for 10 years to become a lawyer, and I did pass the bar exam with flying colors, and I did become partner in the firm I wanted to join… but then I missed my best friend’s wedding and her baby shower because I was studying for the test and she’ll never forgive me and I must be a bad person…”
The fact is, in life there are many moving parts and many different people with feelings and expectations, and we have our own feelings and expectations, and it’s inevitable that things can get a little messy. In order to be happy, we need to forgive ourselves for our mistakes (real or imagined). Life is a learning process. It is not a purgatory where we suffer endlessly for all the things we believe we have done wrong. At least, it doesn’t need to be. Our mind can be our friend, but it isn’t our friend when it reminds us torments us constantly with its condemning interpretations of everything we’ve ever done.
The thing to remember is that, ultimately, we control our own minds. We are responsible for what we let in there, and for what we listen to and give our focus to. If we are not careful, we may find ourselves listening to our brain’s skewed version of life. In psychology, they call this a cognitive distortion (here’s an excellent article with 20 common cognitive distortions and how they affect your life). Left unexamined, our brain’s distorted interpretations can wreak havoc on our mental attitude.
It doesn’t need to be this way. So the next time you catch yourself thinking thoughts that amount to self-torture, where you pull apart every imagined flaw you think you possess and refuse to acknowledge any of the good things, I want you to go to a mirror and point at the person staring back at you and say, “Don’t judge me!”