Why we can say hurtful words to ourselves that we would never say to other people
I, as probably many others, can be very hard on myself. I am able to say things to myself that I would never say to another human. I really am trying to work on being kinder and catch myself in these moments of self-hatred, and even it’s not easy, sometimes I succeed. And so because now, I’m starting to notice these negative thought patterns, I’ve been thinking a lot about the reason I can we can be so tough on ourselves - because I know I’m not alone in this.
I talked about this with my friends and they said they struggle with the same thing. One of them mentioned that there even is a saying: “we tend to be our own worst critics“.
And through the analysis of my own and my friends’ self- hatred, if you will, I realized that the situations in which we can be so mean to myself vary from moments of embarrassment, to failure, to disappointment, and even to mild sickness. I‘m sure you’ve had situations when you called someone by the wrong name, or walked out of the WC with some toilet paper sticking to your shoe, or did not realize that it‘s actually “intents and purposes“ and not ”intensive purposes“ - I feel you with this one - and you probably said some really mean words to yourself after you realized the mistake. And I’m also sure you have memories of such situations that still make you cringe, even though whole years have gone by since it happened.
I certainly have memories of all kinds of embarrassing situations like this - and even though no one probably remembers them besides me, and they probably weren’t that big of a deal - just the thought of some of the really bad ones can make me say to myself “Julia you’re so stupid! Damn, what’s wrong with you!”. And mind you, those are words I would never say to another human, yet somehow, I am okay with directing them at myself.
And unfortunately these words of self-hatred go far beyond just the moments of embarrassment. This message (e.g. “I’m so dumb!” or “I hate myself sometimes!”), implicitly or explicitly, is communicated whenever we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a mirror on a day when we don’t necessarily like how we look - and as someone who has struggled with body image, that has happened more often than I’d like to admit - or on a day when we made some kind mistake, or got low results on an exam, or when we’re in a reading slump, or when we just feel unproductive and procrastinated when we knew we should’ve been working. I’m sure you know what kinds of situations can make us so mean to ourselves. And I gotta say, when I realized just on how many occasions I say or think these words of self-hatred, I was so surprised because I really thought I had a good relationship with myself and was a fairly confident, and self-loving person. But after that realization, I started to question if that really is the case and grew disappointed that so much of my anxiety and insecurities are just a result of my own self-hate and judgements.
And so, upon thinking so much about this, I couldn’t help but wonder why that is; how can I be so mean to myself? I used to think if myself as a pretty confident person and one of my biggest supporters, yet here I am, at times able to say “you’re ugly” to my reflection. How can that be?
The hidden purpose
After pondering this for a while and chatting with my friends and family I came up with a theory. It’s simple - I think that each and every one of us trains ourselves the same way we train dogs, cats, horses and other domesticated creatures. I think the reason that after doing something embarrassing you are able to tell yourself “uh I’m such a stupid person” is the same reason you tell your dog „you’re such a bad dog” when it does something against your will. We train ourselves like we do animals; in order to abandon behaviour which we see as undesirable as well as to strengthen the behaviours we consider to be good.
I realized this because one of my goals for 2021 was to become more compassionate towards others and myself, and so I decided to take action and stop being so mean to myself. Because I don‘t think I‘m alone when I say, I really am tired of this negative rumination whenever I make even the smallest of mistakes. I want to be my own biggest supporter, not my biggest critic. And so recently, when I looked into a mirror and caught myself thinking unkind thoughts, I said out loud to myself “you need to stop this, you need to stop being so hard on yourself” and an amazing thing happened.
I felt this feeling of resistance deep down. It was as if I heard a little voice in my head that responded: “No I can’t stop doing this, because then I won’t have the motivation to improve and change. I need to be hard on myself because if I let myself go and allow myself to be ugly, lazy, or stupid, I will fail. Then I will become all of these things.“.
And it was then and there that I realized “F*ck! I am the one doing this to myself!”, and more then that “I am doing this to myself on purpose!”. I make myself miserable voluntarily because I know I can be trained just like one would train a dog. My subconscious has figured out that deep down all I want is someone to say to me “good job” and that similarly, the thing I’m most afraid of is someone being disappointed in me. But in this case that person is actually just me, and the thing I’m so desperately afraid of is disappointing myself.
But I realize this might not be the case for you as much as it is for me because I in a weird way care about what I think about myself significantly more than what others do. And the thing is, my subconscious, my ego, that awful part of myself has figured that out and used this crazy desire for myself to like me, against me. Or rather, I used it against myself - because let’s not shift the blame here - the ego, the monkey brain, or whatever played a role in this situation, is just a part of me. I did this to myself - and, sadly, often continue to do that to myself because it’s probably going to take years of conscious effort to quit this destructive habit.
The bad and good news
And the fact that it is me who’s saying all these bad words and training myself is both bad and good news.
The bad news: if I can do this to myself, it means I have a toxic relationship with myself (and I can’t simply brake up with me) - and that was something I never suspected because l used to think I am a confident and self-loving person.
But the good news is: since it’s me who’s doing all that harm, I actually can change this and work on improving this relationship - even if it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to do so.
The flip side
And there is the other side of all of this. Because when I realized I train myself through the mean things I say to myself, I realized that I do exactly the same thing through the kind words as well. We train ourselves through punishing AND through rewarding ourselves. It’s exactly like saying “good dog” when it does a trick and “bad dog” when it pees on the couch.
And so when we succeed or when we look nice or get a promotion - we shouldn’t reward ourselves for it by constantly thinking “I look so great!”, staring into our reflection whenever we have the chance, and just obsess over our appearance. I mean sure, be proud of yourself if you succeed, BUT you should keep in mind that this shouldn’t be the foundation of your sense of self-worth and happiness. Because, if you think about it, if we hadn’t been trained into thinking we are not enough until we get that pat on the back from someone else or ourselves, we also wouldn’t be obsessed with our success or looks. We simply would not care what grade we got on an exam or how many people liked our post on Instagram because that wouldn’t matter - we would know that this isn’t where happiness comes from.
What are we like this?
This tendency clearly isn’t good for our mental health and confidence, so a question that needs answering is: “Why are we like this?”.
The answer is, again, a very simple one: it‘t the only way we know how to achieve desirable behavior. The mechanism of punishment and reward is how we were brought up and raised by our parents, and it's the only way we know. It has been used for centuries on all types of creatures, like dogs, cats, and even birds - and so at some point we began using it on ourselves. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for it - it’s not your fault nor is it the fault of your parents. This tendency is deeply rooted in humans that evolved to domesticate animals, plants, and, eventually, even ourselves.
So… what should we do?
Knowing all of this, I think we should reconsider the cost of rewarding and punishing ourselves. Even though it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad - I mean maybe it works for you, and for example, you are able to go to the gym more often because you only allow yourself to eat cake on days when you work out. And look, I completely get it - this mechanism is incredibly effective when it comes to encouraging desirable behavior. But the question all of us need to ask ourselves is who gets to decide what is “desirable” and “undesirable”?
It’s us. It’s that self-conscious part of our brains that defines it. In the past, it has been called many names in different cultures; like ego, or the monkey mind. Whatever it may be, I for one don’t trust it with a task of such significance because I know that, as a human, I am deeply biased and flawed. The things my ego craves most are: status, wealth, sugary and fatty foods, and, above all else, the chance to reproduce. These cravings are the basis of every decision I make - whether that is consciously or not. And so they will also be the foundation of what behavior and characteristics are “desirable“ or ”undesirable”; i.e. what should be punished and what rewarded.
And I don’t know how about you, but I for sure don‘t want these to be the criteria defining the relationship with myself and self-love.
And so I decided to make conscious effort to unlearn the habit of training myself - for the simple reason that I don’t trust myself to be a good trainer. It’s definitely easier said than done but through practicing mindfulness and self-awareness and noticing these toxic tendencies, it can be unlearned.