Hating yourself, a good strategy for success?

A while ago I was facilitating a three day training course for new fitness instructors, these courses are designed to challenge people in an environment which will support them in their growth. It’s a rewarding experience to be a part of as you get to see people who are stretched to their limits in many different areas and then you witness the rewards they gain within themselves when they make breakthroughs.

On this particular course I had one lady who made it clear to me right from the start that she was always hard on herself, it was as if she wore this trait like a badge of honour. She said this statement to me four times within the first couple hours. As the day progressed I saw first hand how she was hard on herself, from my perspective this person was one of the better people in the group and as long as she didn’t have something extremely bad go wrong she was going to be fine in passing the course. But every time she had to do something which showed her ability she would beat herself up for not being good enough. When she was given one on one feedback she’d list all the things that she had done wrong before I even got to open my mouth. 

Over the next two days I could see her starting to lose the emotional battle with herself, she was being so hard on herself, to the point where it was actually holding her back. My role as facilitator and instructor meant that it was my job to support her and to help her see that she was a lot better than how she saw herself, but her shield was impenetrable. 

On the morning of the last day the time had come to start our session and she hadn’t arrived. I waited ten minutes and then tried to give her a call, which went to voicemail, she didn’t turn up. Later on in the day I got a text from her telling me that she didn’t think she was good enough, so she had decided not to come.  

This experience got me thinking about this question: Is being extremely hard on yourself a good strategy when working towards success?

A while ago I read an interesting study, the purpose of the study was to see if you were better off being easy or hard on yourself after you had done a bad behaviour. They figured out a method where they would see what happened when people had eaten too many chocolate biscuits, more than what you would consider a healthy amount. I am sure many of us are familiar with this situation, you sit down and think you’ll have one chocolate biscuit but end up having eight. The researchers were curious to see what would happen after that moment, that moment when you have finished the eighth biscuit, how would being either hard or easy on yourself affect your behaviors from that moment forward?

What they discovered was that those who were easy on themselves would stop at eight biscuits, they’d tell themselves to sharpen up and move on, while the people who were hard on themselves ended up eating way more than eight biscuits. Their conclusion was that being hard on yourself leads to worse decision-making and being easier allows us to see our mistake and move on from it. 

I imagine some people reading this will be thinking that they are very successful and they have gained this success by being hard on themselves, but there are differences on what being hard on yourself can mean.  Sure you can have high standards and expectations for yourself. You work hard to uphold these standards and when you slip the disappointment you experience can be a motivator which leads to better actions, but what I’m talking about here is when you are almost insulting to yourself. 

I once worked with a lady who would tell herself that she was a fat slob every time she ate too much, this internal dialogue didn’t lead to good behaviours, in fact it took her further down a path which emotionally reinforced those horrible words that she self identified with. The interesting thing is, this lady thought those awful words would help her change, but they never did. 

We need to be kind to ourselves, of course there are moments in life where we have slipped and we need to sharpen up but the best strategy to use at those times is to see what really caused the problem and create a plan to deal with it better the next time. Insulting yourself can lead to keeping you in a place you don’t like, treat yourself how you would treat others who need support in tough times, with rationality, love and kindness.  



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Bevan Eyles