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The good, the bad, and the ugly of being hard on oneself

Published on 6th July 2020

I would love to start this piece by saying that we should never be hard on ourselves and that self-compassion is key, but that would be a simplification. Being hard on oneself stems from overthinking so in that fashion I couldn’t help but make my story sound as multi-sided as possible.

Being hard on myself is something that came rather naturally to me. Demanding parents, in my case, that was my mother, played a huge role in making me feel like everything I’ve done was never enough and that I could do better. It all started with a consistent comparison to other pupils in my class using scores as a reference point. In primary school, I really lacked intrinsic motivation to study so I can see why my mother was worried. As a parenting technique, this attitude has its pros in the short-term because it really did make me feel competitive but in the long run, it made me extremely afraid of making a mistake and failing.

Things got significantly worse when I grew up into an opinionated yet anxious teenager. In fact, my fear of disappointing my mother with a bad score became so powerful that I got incentivised to lie by ripping pages out of my school diary. Lucky us, kids of the 1990s, to have had paper diaries! Such an abhorrent response to a great incentive, one would say. Economics provides us with many examples of such incentives. For instance, a high level of regulation of cannabis for public health purposes has boosted the black market. Lying put additional pressure on me because I felt like by trying to live up to my mother's education standards, I was failing her with my moral choices. The inner conflict left me in tears many times but then the cost of lying was lower than that of facing my mother’s rage about my bad scores. Good incentives often lead to perverse outcomes, but I know that she meant well.

The comparison manipulation got later transformed into a status anxiety-inducing rhetoric and threats of leaving me without any financial support, especially when I most needed it. Parents who invest a lot in their children - like my mother did - often expect a lot in return. They unconsciously turn parenting into a business deal: I splurge on your education and in return I expect you to make career decisions as if I were your senate and you were accountable to me by all means. Otherwise, it is said, I won’t help you in any way. I’ve only recently realised that this was nothing else but the ugliest form of conditional love: if you live up to my expectations of you, I’ll be there for you; if not, then you’ve been made aware of the consequences. What happens from here is very kid-specific, but the long-term outcome is very similar: you’re broken. You only know love that is conditional, and you think that to get it you first need to get someone’s approval. When people offer you, unconditional love, you assume that something must be wrong with them.

Even when you rebel - like I did - against your parents' wishes, the emotional baggage doesn’t go away. And unfortunately, as I’ve discovered there is no magic panacea: only persistent control over our thoughts can help mitigate it.

Sounds very dark, I know. I was lucky to have had other people in my life such as my grandparents who with their avalanche of love compensated for my mother’s behaviour. But still, the scar still aches sometimes. I’ve noticed, for example, that though I’ve stopped trying to meet my mother’s expectations, I’ve created many damaging ones myself. One of the worst ones is beating yourself up for every mistake I make. There used to be a time when a typo in an email would make me feel like my whole world had collapsed. It’s almost as if there is still a 9-year old child in me who assumes that if I make a mistake, someone will shout at me and threaten me.

Anxiety has many sides, and sometimes it even has advantages: this fear of making a mistake made me very diligent. It took me a few years to understand that I was not so much afraid of making a mistake as I was of beating myself up for it. I’m my own judge and executor. Well, better myself than someone else.

The default psychologist response to this problem would be to love oneself more which is fair but also not quite. Self-love implies wanting the best for oneself, and excelling at something requires A LOT of work, most of which is simply putting oneself together. Thanks to my mother’s parenting approach, starting from the age of 15 I’ve hardly ever experienced actual self-discipline issues especially when it comes to work and education. I often feel guilty of being laziness too. And when I fail, my overthinker kicks in to remind me of all the time I’ve wasted and concludes that I could have done better if I tried harder.

Perfectionism is wanting to reach perfection in everything you do, to make only the right decisions in life. But perfection doesn’t exist, and the main reason why it doesn’t is that we lack the information. We might beat ourselves up, get angry, beat against the bush, but we will never reach it. Everyone loves a perfectly sewed dress, but we forget that it’s perfectly made thanks to the knowledge of many people, not a single one. Perfection requires centralised knowledge about everything, and we are just humans, and none of us can ever know everything. We just need to be good enough. I tell myself this every day.

It would go against conventional wisdom, but we actually have to be sometimes hard on ourselves to become better, just not excessively hard. We have to negotiate with ourselves. For instance, if we want to acquire a new talent, we have to tell ourselves: hey, this will be hard, you’ll have to study X number of hours, you’ll have to make some sacrifices, and if you agree to the terms, you need to deliver on them. Self-trust is important. If we ditch our commitments to ourselves, how can we then trust ourselves in other areas of life? How can we trust other people and expect them to trust us? We learn about trust for the world by trusting ourselves. Sounds easier than done. Trust is fundamental.

Everyone has a painful childhood story that manifests itself in many ways every now and then, and as we try to overcome it, we should aim to become a hero, not a villain. Yes, we are all damaged, but everything is a spectrum and every coin has two sides. Every bad side of us corresponds with a good one. My mother’s conditional love attitude and perfectionism did hurt me in many ways, but it also made me who I am, and I’m very grateful for that. Our parents did our best.