15 Ways We Beat Ourselves Up
Our mind has a mind of its own, offering feedback even when it’s not welcome.
Posted January 28, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
We all fall victim to beating ourselves up. For some of us, it is merciless. For others, it may just be initial thoughts that we notice and brush off, rather than buying into them.
Most of my patients with chatty minds plead with me to help rid them of the “noise.” They get frustrated with the chatter for the mere fact that it exists, what the chatter is conveying, and the struggle with trying to challenge, change, and rid themselves of the distress the chatter evokes.
They find creative ways to avoid, dismiss, and get rid of the noise. Most often with little success and mounds of frustration, distress, and hopelessness. They may recall initially coming to see me out of desperation because their methods failed them.
I gently explain that the chatter is not the issue, per se—rather, it is the distress and struggle that goes along with it that becomes problematic. Inevitably, the goal is not necessarily to get rid of the chatter but rather to lower the volume. They learn that their mind is persistent, and the chatter is a direct portal to their values.
The thoughts let us know what we want and what we don’t want and what is meaningful and fundamentally important to us. Our minds are our reliable barometers. My patients learn to thank their minds for providing them with invaluable insight into the way they think, feel, and want to behave. They are often forced to listen to their minds, but it is they who get to decide how they want to behave and react to the thoughts and feelings.
I had a client whose boyfriend recently ended their year-long relationship. She wanted to be “okay” with the way he abruptly ended the relationship and the way he was inconsiderate towards her throughout their relationship. I thanked her mind for reminding her that her values dictate that she be troubled by his behavior that she needs to be more mindful in future relationships. The chatter that caused her to repeatedly ask “How can a person behave this way to another person?” gives her direction on how she wants to behave and personally be. It is her mind’s way of relentlessly protecting her from future potential emotional pain.
The brain. An incredible organ that we can rely on. One that will incessantly try to guide and protect us. I have learned to appreciate and align with my mind. I often laugh at how relentless my mind is — even when it does not necessarily need to be. Our mind has a mind of its own, so much so that it often convinces us that thoughts are facts and that we have an indisputable reason to be sad, frustrated, anxious, angry, and the whole array of feelings that often surface. Its main intention is to guide and protect us. Our mind takes that role very seriously and often offers feedback even when it’s not prompted or welcomed.
There are (at least) 15 ways that we inadvertently beat ourselves up. It is our mind's way of guiding and protecting us and reminding us of what we truly value. We:
1. Compare Ourselves to Others – We naturally do this and can all remember doing this since we were very young. It is the way our mind helps us gauge if we are “okay” as compared to others. The issue is there will always be someone smarter, better looking, and more successful, and therefore, we often end up berating ourselves for not being “as good as” or not being “good enough.”
Solution – Notice where your focus is, redirect it back to yourself without judgement, and ask, “How will I be my best self? What are my goals, my desires, and my needs?”
2. Focus on Everything That Is “Wrong” With Us – Even though we realistically and intellectually know that as humans we are all imperfect, our mind leads us to believe that we “ought” to be perfect and without flaws. Our mind often defaults to tough-love tactics to motivate us. For some, that works well; for others, it is discouraging and leads to hopelessness.
Solution – Notice that you are focusing mainly on your “negative” characteristics or attributes and expand your focus by leaving room for recognizing and appreciating your more favorable and positive ones as well.
3. Dwell on the Past or Future – Our mind wants to prevent us from repeating past mistakes and from making future mistakes. It naturally gravitates to the past and future to ponder regrets and predict future experiences. The issue is that we often lose sight of the present moment because the mind is flooded with regret or anxiety.
Solution – Commit to a mindful practice where you are purposefully paying attention to the here and now. This can easily be practiced in daily life by slowing down and paying close attention to your day-to-day experiences or practicing meditation. (I highly recommend the “Insight Timer” app.)
4. Base Our Mood on Things That We Often Cannot Control and Are External to Us – Our thoughts get caught up and attach to certain feelings and impact our mood. For example, if someone acts unfriendly to us, behavior that we cannot necessarily control, we become frustrated, disappointed, and angry and our moods shift based on our thoughts and feelings. These thoughts can be self-directed (“I’m such an idiot for letting her treat me that way”) or externally directed (“She’s so selfish, I’m never going to talk to her again”).
Solution – Respect the thoughts and feelings that get evoked. Notice them, acknowledge them, and ask yourself, “How else can I see this?” and “Is my prompted reaction/behavior a reflection of my best me and who I want to be?” Recognize that an aggressive, angry thought or feeling does not mean you are an aggressive, angry person. You can have those thoughts and feelings and still choose to behave thoughtfully and mindfully.
5. Perseverate Over Our “Mistakes” – When we experience making what we perceive as a mistake, we can dwell on it for days or longer—recounting what happened and how it could or should have been different.
Solution – Recognize that as humans we are all imperfect. Mistakes are bound to happen, and mistakes are just that, mistakes. Going forward you can make the choice to behave differently. Mindfully contemplate what you can learn from your experiences to improve your future.
6. Do Not Differentiate Between “Stress” and “Distress” – Our minds often confuse normal and average stress with distress. For example, it is expected that moving comes along with stress (loss, packing, unpacking, organizing, etc.). The distress comes when we struggle with and attempt to get rid of our stress. It manifests in intense and uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and reactions. We may say, “I shouldn’t be stressed about this” or “If I’m stressed it means that I can’t handle things.”
Solution – Identify the source of your stress and the significance it has for you. Acknowledge your vulnerabilities, how the stress is impacting you, and what support you may need. Seek out the support that you need and deserve.
7. Place Stipulations on Our Actions – Things must be organized a certain way or follow a certain schema in order for us to take direct action. Because things do not always align, we procrastinate and lack follow-through, which we then get down on ourselves about. For example, we may say, “I’ll exercise when I’m feeling up to it” or “I’ll look for a new job when there are several jobs for me to apply to.”
Solution – Avoid attaching contingencies and stipulations to behavior. Do things that attach to your values just because; even if it takes effort, is challenging, and you don’t feel like it.
8. Label Ourselves and Neglect to Recognize and Accept the Different Parts of Ourselves – We may refer to ourselves as “unthoughtful,” “unsuccessful,” “lazy,” “impulsive,” etc. When our other parts present themselves, we may not give them as much credence, because they do not fit into the schema of how we see ourselves. Labeling ourselves and not noticing our different and distinct parts thwarts progress toward self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-love and promotes thinking that the negative attributes are all of what we are (i.e., am bad vs. did bad).
Solution – Recognize that even when we feel one-dimensional, in fact we are not. We have different parts that make up our whole. It is in our nature to notice and focus on our negative attributes and behaviors. Our mind wants to improve and be “good enough” or “as good as.” It will naturally dwell on the negativity. To notice the more positive attributes and behaviors, it often takes a concerted effort. Make that effort and even when your mind continually (and inevitably) pulls you away, return back. If you are generally mindful about acting in accordance with your values, you will have much positivity to reflect on.
9. Avoid Discomfort, Shame and/or Uncomfortable Thoughts and Feelings – It is not a wonder why they would be avoided. Our mind tells us it is uncomfortable and to run for the hills. The issue is that we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to build resilience, coping skills, and a corrective experience. We reinforce our negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences because that is all we know and are privy to. Our past experiences do not let us believe otherwise.
Solution – We need to test assumptions if we are to see and experience things differently. In order to challenge ourselves, it will require experiencing and leaning into uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. When they arise, notice them, label them (e.g., uncomfortable, shameful, etc.) and observe them. Notice how they appear, when and how they change, and whether they are directly impacting your behavior. Be mindful about how you want to behave and consider when you are problem-solving. Keep in mind that thoughts and feelings are fleeting and what often feels like a catastrophe in the moment usually dissipates with time, rational thinking, and the ability to process it more openly and expansively.
10. Don’t Recognize That Our Disparaging Thoughts Often Show Up as Self-Importance – They may show up as thoughts like “it only happens to me,” “everyone thinks this way of me,” or “everyone notices my mistakes/flaws.” Even though these feel legitimate, they are also very self-focused and reflect self-absorption. An example is when we wake up in the morning and notice a pimple on our face and feel annoyed and self-conscious. When we walk down the street and notice someone looking at us, we assume that they are noticing our pimple. As if they have nothing more important to be thinking about than your measly pimple!
Solution – When you notice that you are self-focused and it becomes all about you, expand your field of vision. Notice others and what their experience may be. Ground yourself with the notion that your thoughts, feelings, and experiences are typical and universal, and that you are okay just as you are.
11. Equate Negative Thoughts and Feelings With Facts – Our mind sometimes makes the mistake of not reality-testing our negative thoughts and feelings. We expect that because our mind relays it, it must be credible.
Solution – Remember that thoughts are not facts and that they are often unpredictable, irrational, and fleeting. Give yourself permission to be curious. Be open to all possibilities. Reality-test thoughts and expand your thinking to include a multitude of alternatives that you can consider.
12. Have a Plethora of “Shoulds” and Expectations for Ourselves and Others – We have developed a script of our expectations, assumptions, and rules for our lives and others. If we or others behave out of line with that script, we often get judgmental, frustrated, and angry. We have set ourselves up because of life’s guaranteed uncertainties. Things do not always go the way we want and expect them to, people don’t always behave the way we want and expect them to, and often we surprise ourselves as well.
Solution – Understand what your “shoulds,” “ought tos,” and “musts” are. Recognize that your reaction is based on your own perspective. Others may not share these perspectives. It is their right not to. Consider other perspectives and ways of looking at yourself and others.
13. Expect That We Will Not Be Understood – We often don’t expect to get our needs met or be understood by others. The challenge is that we often prematurely react based on that prediction. We may not bother trying, avoid or cut off, and/or become frustrated. We may also negatively act out or just give up because of feeling hopeless and helpless.
Solution – Notice the insecurities that get evoked when you are approaching and interacting in your interpersonal relationships. Make efforts to be understood by being open to experiences, taking risks at being vulnerable, and by explaining yourself to others in an effort to be understood.
14. Expect People to Read Our Minds – There is an expectation that others, especially partners or the people emotionally closest to us, should and can read our minds. When they can’t, we react negatively. We say, “If they know me well, they should know this about me” or “They should know what I want by now.” We get down on them for being “inadequate” and ourselves for not effectively getting our needs met.
Solution – Because people are always experiencing growth and development, we are forever changing and in flux. Based on your mood or the circumstances, one day you may want to receive physical affection when you’re feeling down, while other days, you may want space and alone time to gather your thoughts and regroup. We most definitely cannot read minds. Express your desires and needs from circumstance to circumstance or you run an even greater risk of being misunderstood and not attended to.
15. Perpetually Second-Guess Ourselves – We go through the motions of thinking about why we did not make the “best” decision, or maybe there was another decision that was not considered. We exhibit a lack of self-confidence, self-assurance, and conviction in our thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
Solution – Decisions are typically not black and white. There are usually both negative and positive consequences to most decisions and they may also run contrary to values that we hold in high regard. That is why so often it is difficult to make decisions and then feel conviction about these decisions. Learn to effectively problem solve by recognizing all alternatives and decide which values are a priority in the moment (for more specific guidance with this, please see this post.)
There are so many ways we beat ourselves up. We cannot control our thoughts and feelings, but we can control the actions we take. It is the nature of our mind to wonder, get distracted, and be consumed by a multitude of thoughts.
With thinking there naturally follows a surfacing of comfortable and uncomfortable feelings. All thoughts and feelings are welcome. They generously teach us about ourselves, what is important to us, and what we want out of life. Be compassionate and generous with yourself. With curiosity, notice your thoughts, observe them, and be open to learning from all of them.
Here is my Reflecting On Our Life Guided Meditation.