Many people believe being one’s own private drill sergeant is the best way to be a good person. Countless advertisements and workout videos have taught us that if we berate ourselves enough, we’ll get up off the couch and be more productive. If we break down, overeat, or underperform, many of us believe it is helpful to call ourselves “maggot” and “lazy piece of @#$%.”
Most of the time when we’re being hard on ourselves, it’s in service of this misguided belief that self-criticism is the fastest road to self-improvement. We believe the meaner we are, the more we’ll want to obey. We suspect the opposite must also be true: if we’re kind and loving to ourselves, that will be an excuse to nap all day or spend countless hours playing video games.
It’s part of our national history to believe in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” method of motivation. Yet lately we have tempered our child-rearing techniques, teaching via rewards instead of punishments. For ourselves, however, we most often still choose the whip over the carrot. Client after client sits in my office and tells me how, in an attempt to lose weight, they tell themselves they look like a whale. While trying to be a better parent, they scare themselves with thoughts that they’re destroying their kids. Hoping to get ahead at work, they call themselves useless or pathetic.
Empathy is often a better motivator than cruelty. To be clear, this behavior doesn’t work. Imagine a child who wants to learn math, but the teacher constantly humiliates them, calls them stupid, and points out their mistakes. Most people under this kind of pressure will crack, either agreeing they must be incapable, or rebelling and refusing to try. No one has ever felt energized and ready to learn after being yelled at for their failures.
Instead, the key is to be gentle with yourself. Allowing for failure can give you enough energy to get back up after you stumble and start over again. If you want to cultivate perseverance, resilience, and grit, then you can reinforce these characteristics with praise. Support can create encouragement so you actually want to continue the difficult work of self-improvement.
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If you find yourself stuck subscribing to the philosophy of punishment-as-motivation, here are some quick strategies for changing this ingrained habit.