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Are You Hard on Yourself?

By Rick Hanson

Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, everybody. It's important to acknowledge mistakes, learn from them so they don't happen again, and feel appropriate remorse. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they're unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me sets the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise... and then when it goes off, another part of me grumbles: Who set the darn clock? More broadly, there are an inner critic and an inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn't credit you for your efforts to make amends.

That's why you need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to return to the high road even if you've gone down the low one, and - frankly - to tell that inner critic to Hush Up Now.

Start by picking something relatively small that you're still being hard on yourself about, and then try the methods below; the ones in the beginning lay the foundation for deep and lasting self-forgiveness. I've spelled out these steps in detail, but you can usually get to the heart of them in a few minutes. Then work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch with the feeling of being cared about by someone in your life today or from your past. Get a sense that this person's caring for you, and perhaps other aspects of him or her, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector. Do this with other beings who care about you, and open to a growing sense of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, bring to mind some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don't need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.

These first two steps will help you face whatever needs forgiving, and actually forgive yourself.

  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone's downfall - whatever it was - acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others.

    Notice any facts that are hard to face - like the look in a child's eyes when you yelled at her - and be especially open to them; they're the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.

  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.)

    You could ask others - include those you may have wronged - what they think about this sorting (and about other points below), but you alone get to decide what's right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., not done again) without self-flagellation.

  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it.

    Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.

  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself.

    Next, decide what if anything remains to be done - inside your own heart or out there in the world - and then do it. Let it sink in that you're doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.

  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to the still, quiet voice of conscience, so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, such as the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more of the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that's alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven - in this case, by yourself - to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others if you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

This comes from Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and invited lecturer at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard universities.

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