Being too hard on yourself


The last few weeks I haven’t spent much time working on my blog. The unexpected Summer heat in the Netherlands, but also being tired and going on a few short trips, were the main cause I didn’t spent much time online. I regularly blamed myself for that. As the eternal perfectionist, I ask way too much of myself, regardless of the circumstances. Where in this past Summer heatwave I would have said to a friend: ‘It makes sense you don’t get any work done now’ and ‘Take it easy’ I tell myself something like: “You could have done the dishes this morning/ written a piece for a new post/ find out how that plugin for your site works, because you are really not getting any work done this way.” And when I didn’t exercise for 2 weeks because I got a bit short of breath by the heat, I was quite bummed:”That’s not good for your muscles, Jan!” Do you recognize any of this negative self talk in your life? 

I have known for years that I am too strict with myself and that there is no good reason for that. Even so, despite me acknowledging this, it is extremely difficult to demand any less of myself. Sometimes I have the feeling that I let myself be “penalized” for being chronically ill; for the fact that I have much less useful hours in a day because I am so often tired. For the fact that I do not have a full-time job and I live on benefits. And although I just accept such things from someone else and say that he / she should not ask so much of himself because it’s difficult enough already, there is clearly another standard for myself. A towering, perfectionistic standard. And I still haven’t really figured out why.

“You won’t change anything by reading about something. 
You really have to put it into practice “

Make room for mistakes

This past Autumn I started creating a Self Care Journal. The goal was to take better care of myself: being more compassionate and more kind. The idea was great and I love having a creative project to work on, but in the end just writing down tips and reading about self compassion isn’t going to make you a kinder person towards yourself. You have to really put things into practice. That’s what I started doing a couple of weeks ago.
I really love to draw, but lately I’ve started ruining things for myself by putting way too much pressure on the outcome. I started to look at pictures of how something should look and I wasn’t happy if my drawing didn’t look as good as I thought it should have. I decided that I could only draw from my mind for a while. It wasn’t supposed to look like reality anymore. That definately took some of the pressure of, but I still kept some of the tension: would I think the result was good enough? I found out I had a lot more fun drawing ‘from my head’ and even though I still have quite high standards I became a bit milder. Now I also doodle. Just for fun. That helps. These solutions to combat perfectionism give me more space, they create more fun and I am allowed to make mistakes now. Pfeww!

How do you feel right now?

A second step, one that’s more physical, followed. I tried to listen to what I feel. Instead of beating myself up about something I didn’t do, failed at or broke I started with noticing what I felt in that moment and acknowledge that feeling. If I had dropped something in the kitchen (flour, cocoa – I let slip things often…) I noticed in these moments I often am very tired and my concentration level is very low. If I then dropped something and I had to clean this mess up I become either sad, angry or impatient with myself. Instead of scolding at myself for making such a mess, I said to myself: “You are tired and because you dropped this and now also have to clean up, you’re frustrated with yourself. That’s okay.” Doing just this: acknowledging what I feel right then and there, helps me enormously.

“Ask yourself what you need right now”

As a good second step, you can then ask yourself what you need right in that moment. In this case I knew exactly what I needed: “Just sit down and relax a bit. You can clean up later.” Hearing that from myself, being kind to myself, makes me feel so much better. I would have been in an even worse mood if I had been scolding at myself, let me clean up the kitchen angrily and then finish the job I was doing being tired and frustrated and all. And probably doing a really bad job at it. It is amazing what you can gain if you just listen to how you feel and notice what your body needs. And not only will your life improve, but also that of the people around you (you’ll be so much more pleasant to be around).
(This is an exercise of self compassion and mindfulness. If you like to read more about this, Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer have both written great books about this.) 

Now that I’ve gotten a little further on this path to more self acceptance and self compassion, I have started getting my hopes up about dealing with my perfectionism and always being so hard on myself. It is a long road because years and years of the same negative behaviour usually take just as many years of learning to do things differently. Also, in our society the standard of living and the expectations are pretty high and we expect a lot from ourselves and the people around us. But I think it’s time for new norms and values. My own. Those that make me feel good about myself. Living with a chronic illness is hard enough as it is already.

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