Often, the desire for self-improvement can pave the way for unnecessary and unproductive self-criticism. It’s all too easy sometimes, but I think a lot of us really deserve to be kinder to ourselves. So, if you’re anything like me - I’ve found that one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself is to separate your negative qualities from your identity.
Disclaimer: I’m not a perfect person, contrary to popular belief.
Joking, obviously - no one is, or should be expected to be. A few of my own personal biggest red flags include procrastination (see Exhibit A: my first-year university grades as the consequence of that), being consistently late to social events, if not "just about on time but cutting it extremely fine", and having a mild self-proclaimed Diet Coke addiction.
I also have the infuriating (for everyone else) habit of reading messages, mentally formulating a response, and accidentally convincing myself that telepathy is a thing and that since I’ve replied to the text in my head, I can forget to actually type it out and press send.
As much as I’ve just unashamedly outed myself there, there are a couple of things I like to think I do pretty well. I generally pride myself on being relatively self-aware, at the very least, in that I’ll be the first one to notice a mistake I’ve made, a flaw I have, or something I wish I could do better. As a result, all of the above (my friends will be pleased to know) are things I’m trying to work on - I promise!
I think it’s a good thing to have an awareness of the way you’re wired and the traits you have - as far as you can be objective when it comes to yourself.
But as with a lot of things in life, sometimes this can go a little too far in the wrong direction. For the purposes of taking accountability, and attempts at self-improvement, it’s great to be able to recognise where you fall short, so you can make the active effort to take steps to be a bit better.
However, I’ve found it’s not uncommon for those who are able to identify certain flaws in themselves to be the ones who are the most self-critical. It’s sad to see, in my slightly biased opinion, some of the kindest people in the world be so hard on themselves, just because they have the capacity to notice certain personal aspects they could improve.
Self-awareness shouldn’t lead so easily to self-criticism - at least, not when the latter is as unproductive as it often can be.
We hear people say negative things about themselves too often, these days. I myself am guilty of occasionally being over-dramatic and telling myself I’m an idiot when I’ve made an accidental mistake, or that I’m a disgusting, terrible person that deserves to be exiled when I’ve hurt someone I love.
As we all know - but maybe could do with a reminder of, from time to time - everyone makes mistakes. That’s nothing revolutionary to say, but when you can be your own worst enemy, it’s hard to see it from that perspective.
Especially when you’re making an admirable effort to focus and work on self-improvement, I think it’s extremely important to take a specific approach so that you’re doing it in the right way, in the long term.
Think of it as a reversal of the common adage, "Treat others how you’d want to be treated". Of course, keep doing that, but at the same time, treat yourself how you’d treat others.
I, for one, know some of the worst opinions of myself that I can get into my head after a particularly bad day/situation/action are things I would never even dream of saying to one of my lovely friends, had they done whatever it is I’m beating myself up for.
Taking the time to immediately resist the urge to attack yourself when you’ve done something "wrong" is something that definitely takes time, and needs to be consciously worked on in order to maintain a healthier mindset overall.
Reframing your mindset
First, identify the issue and what you think went wrong. Using a hypothetical example of a situation I’m far too familiar with: handing in a piece of work a little late past its deadline. I’ve been trying to navigate my way through it recently, before getting all frustrated and using it as fuel to hate myself.
Maybe I haven’t managed my time as well as I could have in the past week. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to take on multiple other projects at the same time, meaning I became more overwhelmed than productive. Maybe it was a combination of multiple decisions that meant I had to hand the work in late, and potentially face the consequences of that.
Laying out the potential reasons for whatever happened is a helpful way for me to try and rationalise the situation, as opposed to letting my negative emotions take priority from the start.
If anything, it could be easier from then on to handle the scenario differently next time - you can have an idea of how things may have resulted in a more ideal outcome if you’d decided to take a different (in this case, arguably more responsible) approach.
As clichéd as it sounds, I think it’s all about reframing your mindset. That comes with rephrasing the initial thoughts, reactions or criticisms we tend to aim at ourselves with the supposed aim of urging ourselves to be better. Sure, negative reinforcement and reverse psychology are a thing, but I’m sceptical about how many of us are actually able to thrive under it.
Personally, I’m convinced that the more unkind I am to myself, the less likely I’ll ultimately be to feel motivated to be a better person (which in itself is entirely subjective), or give myself credit when I do improve.
Instead of telling myself "I’m lazy", I’ll try to say "I’ve made a habit of not doing work unless it’s absolutely necessary, or prioritising other, less urgent things".
Instead of saying "I’m a bad friend", I’ll try to say "Recently, I haven’t communicated as much as I feel I should with the people I care about".
Instead of saying "I’m stupid", I’ll try to realise there are more productive things I can take the initiative to do, rather than just sit and attack myself, with revision and studying, if I want to get a better grade on my next uni essay.
Be specific about your faults, and frame them as an action that you’re consciously either working on or ignoring rather than an unchangeable part of who you are. By doing so, you allow yourself to accept your mistakes and work constructively on them, instead of wallowing in blaming yourself or even pretending they didn’t happen.
With the risk of sounding even cringier, here’s another reminder that doing a bad thing doesn’t automatically, or on the whole, make you a bad person. Thankfully, it really doesn’t work like that.
Of course, this is a lot easier said than done, and I’m by no means an expert. But when you make an effort to think like this, repeat it, and practise it, you might start to create a more positive, productive cycle; over time reconstructing your mindset to align with the healthy self-awareness and self-worth you deserve.
With the presence of social media these days, and the natural tendency we all have to compare ourselves to others, it’s also vital to remember that you’re not going to be the perfect, model human even if you achieve this.
But I think that’s a relief, in a way. Besides, the fact that you’re trying to be "better" wherever you can in my eyes already says something good about you.
It takes work, for sure. But I think we’d all be a little happier if we were able to establish a support system in which we encourage the people around us to do the same when we catch our friends speaking or thinking about themselves like we tend to do.
What are your tips for reframing your mindset? Let us know in the comments!