"Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are."
- Malcolm S. Forbes
I spent all of high school being part of the color guard team. One of my coaches, Bobby, had been part of an elite team and had high expectations and standards for us. During my second semester of my sophomore year, I started doing bad for no apparent reason. I was dropping my tosses a lot, I couldn’t stay focused, and I was just not meeting the achievement standard I expected of myself. And of course, my response to my failure was to beat myself up about it, very harshly. After a certain practice when I was messing up a lot, Bobby had a talk with everyone. He said these words to the whole team, but I felt like it was directly for me. He said that when we drop, or make a mistake, he didn’t want to see us feel bad about it – he wanted to see us try again and do it better next time. His words really clicked with me, and I’ve tried to apply them to every perceived failure I have.
To this day, I still need to remind myself of the lesson he taught me years ago, because I am still incredibly hard on myself. I hate making mistakes, because it makes me feel like a failure. After I graduated college, I was battling depression for over a year, which only worsened how I felt about myself after every mistake big or small. Logically, I know it’s not healthy or beneficial to beat yourself up all the time, but it's hard to stop. So, I wanted to know why I do this to myself so much.
Barbara Markway made a lot of sense to me in her article, “Why is Self-Acceptance so Hard?” She explains that if you are constantly too hard on yourself, it is probably because you can’t accept yourself as you are. She says, “We think if we punish ourselves enough, we'll change.” It’s like when drill sergeants try to whip people into shape by yelling at them and calling them puny girls. I’m not sure if that works on anyone, or at least not most people. Being negative to yourself does not help you. Markway explains, “the more we yell at ourselves to "buck up," "snap out of it," or "get tough," the more anxious we become.” It just doesn’t work, so it really is a pointless waste of time and energy. In order to accept ourselves unconditionally, we have to stop believing that punishing ourselves with negativity will make us better, because it won’t.
The second reason self-acceptance can be hard for you is if you don’t feel deserving of it. She says, “We don't believe we deserve self-acceptance, at least not now... we put conditions on self-acceptance.” She compares it to someone trying to lose weight and saying, “I’ll be happy with myself when I’m 30 pounds lighter.” This really hit home hard with me. For the most part, I have felt successful almost all of my life. I’ve accomplished nearly every major goal I’ve had. I was the person that my family was proud of, and friends looked up to.
Since I’ve graduated, I have not felt like that person at all. I put conditions on myself that I wouldn’t be “okay” until I got a decent job and went back to school to pursue a Master’s degree. I know that a truly mentally healthy person can be okay no matter their circumstances, but that is not how I have felt this past year and a half. I keep telling myself that I’ll be okay once these conditions are met, and my fear is that if all my conditions are met, what if I’m still not okay or happy with myself? It’s funny to me, because I’ve always perceived myself as a confident person with high self-esteem. It’s weird to learn that it’s hard for me to accept myself as I am right now, but it’s true. The biggest reason I can’t accept myself is because I’m not where I want to be or where I thought I’d be by now.
The third reason Markway gives for difficulty with self-acceptance is, “We believe we're giving up control.” It’s a weird confusing paradox, because we are trying to be in control of our self-perception by holding ourselves to a certain standard. We tell ourselves, “This is who I want to be. This is what I want to be. This is what I want to do,” and if we are not those things, then we think to ourselves, “I don’t like myself because I am not who, what, or where I want to be.” We think that by being tough on ourselves, it'll be the push we need to achieve our ideal. And we can’t accept anything less than that standard. We think that if we are not at that standard, then we have less worth.
Markway explains that true control happens when we relinquish it. “Instead of giving away our power by letting other people determine our worth, we're saying to ourselves, “I accept myself today, exactly the way I am,”” she says. In order to accept yourself, you have to let go of who or what you think you’re supposed to be right now. This is terrifying, because we may think, “How am I supposed to be a better person?” What we need to learn is that accepting yourself as you are in this moment doesn’t mean you stop striving to grow. It doesn’t mean “you're giving up and not trying anymore… it means you're looking at yourself and your situation realistically.”
We need to be kind to ourselves. For people like me, who are used to being too hard on yourself, it’s not easy to be kind. It’s incredibly easy to be kind to others, but not to myself. It’s a hard process to put my life in perspective and tell myself it’s okay to be where I’m at right now. I hate “how to’s,” because they honestly don’t seem helpful to me, but when I found a few articles about “how to stop being too hard on yourself,” the very first piece of advice was to have realistic expectations.
Now, at first thought, I told myself my expectations are realistic, because I’ve accomplished this much so far, so I have to keep accomplishing more or else I’m a failure. But it’s actually a good piece of advice, because I look at all of my friends who are my age. Some have Bachelor’s, one has a Master’s, others are still in school or not. Some have jobs, others don’t. No one has the job they want. We’re all in different places of our lives, and that’s okay. I’ve been learning the hard way that everyone was right – the real world is hard and it sucks. But the next step is to learn that I can still accept myself whether I’m in school or not, have an amazing job or be jobless, be single or in a relationship.
Another piece of advice I found was to give myself credit for what I have achieved. The truth is, I have achieved a lot, and not just in tangible ways, like finishing school and stuff like that. Whether I’m doing what I want with my life right now or not, I am the person I want to be, and that should mean more. I keep doing what I love, which is writing, even if I’m not being paid to do it. And I just celebrated my birthday this weekend and was reminded of how many people care about me and how much. Who I am and who loves me should be more important than what I’m currently doing with my life, because circumstances always change, but your character and the people in your life can last a lifetime.
p.s. fun fact: only children tend to be harder on themselves
"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson