Stop beating yourself up with this simple technique

November 22, 2021

If you’re anything like me, you care about personal development and you’re always looking to improve yourself. After all, pursuing your goals and learning new things is the key to a happy life. But you can get obsessed with outcomes and beat yourself up when reality doesn’t match your expectations.

I used to beat myself up all the time. Did I ask a girl out and get rejected? I’d mentally review the events for days, analyzing my “mistakes” and thinking “fuck, I should have said that.” Did I come in second in a speech contest? I’d berate myself for my lack of prep. Honestly, I treated myself worse than I’d treat anyone else.

Today, I can usually shrug such things off. I actually smile when I fail. Failing is feedback! When something doesn’t go right, I see it as a learning opportunity and I know I’ll have a better chance next time. You too can get to that point, by looking at things differently.

A quick note on why beating yourself up is counterproductive, in addition to simply feeling bad. When you beat yourself up, you encourage more failure. You’re telling yourself you can’t succeed, so why bother trying again? You’re biasing your attention towards negative things, which messes with your self-esteem. And you’re getting attached to short-term results while ignoring the big picture.

Given that beating yourself up is so bad, why do we do it? We humans need to assign meaning to events. To do that, we tell ourselves stories. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you have good stories. Beating yourself is up telling yourself bad stories about what happened.

The storytelling is bad for a few reasons. First, you set an arbitrary standard of success. You’re beating yourself up because something didn’t match your expectations—but notice that they were your expectations to begin with. You could have set different expectations. Second, it’s a bad story because it hurts your confidence. You’re telling yourself, “I suck. I’m not good enough”. And third, the story may not even be true! Whatever you “failed” at—there may have been circumstances outside of your control. Usually you can’t tell whether that’s the case.

What if you could tell yourself a better story? What if you could look at the same set of events with a different “frame” and assign a different meaning? I learned this technique from Steve Pavlina. My experience is that a different frame with a better story leads to more results and more pleasant emotions.

Here’s one story you can try. Imagine your brain is a computer. It runs a software program. Given certain inputs, a piece of software will always produce the same output. When you find yourself in a certain situation, your brain runs its neural program and produces output: your words and your behavior. Sometimes your words and behavior lead to success; sometimes they don’t.

Now, when a computer program doesn’t give you the results you desire, what do you do? You don’t say, “ugh, what a stupid program”. No—you improve the program!

Do the same with your brain. Don’t tell yourself you’re “not good enough”. Instead, learn new skills. A better story is, “okay, that didn’t work—let’s upgrade my neural programming”.

The key is to accept you could not have acted differently. Your brain was programmed in a certain way, remember?

The good news, of course, is that you can change your brain’s program. Your brain is a learning machine. Give it new inputs, new experiences, and it will adapt. That translates to a higher chance that you’ll do well next time.

Recognize that having new experiences means taking risks. You might make more mistakes, but that’s okay: by trying (and sometimes making mistakes), you figure out what works.

When you imagine that your brain is a computer that you can program, your self-esteem won’t depend on short-term results anymore. You can focus on improving your skills. And you can trust that you’ll get the results you want eventually.

Most importantly, you can finally stop beating yourself up.

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