A Six Stage Tool to Stop Self-Pressuring

Drawing on multiple evidence-based approaches, this may help ease the tension.

Posted Nov 24, 2017

"Truth is, I'll never know all there is to know about you just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour." — Tom Hanks

It's not unusual to know someone who puts too much pressure on themselves. Definitely I see this a lot in my practice. People "beat themselves up", noting that they are more self-critical than they'd like, and they don't know how to be any other way. Others see this style as a form of tough-minded self-discipline they either lack, or appreciate, or long for. To the extent that it works, it's hard to give it up without a solid replacement. If we feel vulnerability equals weakness, it may very well be that pushing oneself very hard has been the best available option.

Sometimes this is internalized, with lots of self-blame and difficulty being consoled or soothed in any way, as logic never works. Sometimes this is externalized and take a toll on relationships, personal and professional. Sometimes it is extreme, to the point of appearing masochistic or intentionally self-defeating. When we set out to address something on purpose, rather than changing without noticing or trying, starting with "candid recognition" is important. In extreme, when causing excessive distress or functional disruption, self-critical thinking can be part of a clinical picture requiring professional assistance.

1. Recognition: My task is to progressively reduce the amount I pressure myself. It does not matter much how long it takes as long as there is overall movement in the intended direction.

The goal is to implement and maintain a new process of self-governance. Any fundamental changes in overall state may or may not arrive later. By impartially noticing that I may sometimes pressure myself, and that this may interact with any actual pressure from other people, I can position myself in relation to fact so that I am able to deal with it without excessive preoccupation or avoidance. This involves a level of addressing any evoked emotions and states of mind and habitually and gently reminding oneself of the primary task to stop pressuring. If I pressure other people, recognition of that habit is equally necessary for related reasons. I find humor and playfulness to be helpful here, though that is a matter of personal style in large part.

2. Gratitude: Replace pressure with gratitude. I pause to appreciate myself for engaging with difficult facts, because recognition of being unkind to oneself can come with negative feelings, often directed at oneself.

If not countered, this can become a downward spiral into being convinced that one is undeserving, or similar, and interfere with installing new habits. Gratitude may come up again later, as well, along with related experiences (e.g. forgiveness, though this is a complicated subject). Notice other feelings you have toward yourself for future reference.

3. Acceptance: I accept this is how things are, grieve and so on, and feel relief. Anger and resistance become sadness and relaxing into the change in direction.

My feeling is less anxious and pressuring, as I relinquish the desire to control by coercion in favor of cultivating the emergence of desired patterns of internal discourse and external action. I own responsibility for the outcome without blaming myself or being excessively exultant, as applicable. I take enjoyment from progress and seek to learn from collapse. Acceptance may come up later, especially then we start to feel stuck, and works well with gratitude because it inclines toward more gentle (rather than coerced) acceptance. Self-soothing is a skill set which can take time to learn.

4. Planning: I develop new expectations for how I will receive and roll with challenging situation which inevitably come up in which I find myself forgetting to choose other options than pressuring.

When the internal emotional barometer starts to rise, I use recognition, gratitude and acceptance to implement an action plan. That action plan involves a reminder of what my primary task is, and core values. I steady myself to notice what is actually happening before we may start pressuring ourselves, as that pressured state is often in response to unnoticed triggers, and there often is a rapid subconscious emotional sequence which we miss unless we pay close attention, as the higher stress of the pressured state can change our priorities and how aware we are of our own experience. This is a point of vulnerability because in some emotional states it is very hard to stick with the plan even if you remember what it is because you won't want to. You have to plan for that moment so you at least have a chance of thinking about what you want after the crisis passes, and not just when emotions are high.

We may be a little bit dissociative, for example, numb to what we are feeling; or quite angry or agitated, so that we are blinded; or confused, and unable to think clearly; or along similar lines. Specific plans can apply to specific internal and external circumstances but start out with recognition, gratitude and acceptance, in some order. Have a plan for dealing with feeling loss of control and/or facing an overwhelming situation.

5. Implementation: Make a "self-signal" you can use with yourself to re-orient yourself to your core values and primary task, and interrupt the automatic cascade which leads into the pressuring habit. 

The signal may be a word, an idea, a behavior, or may happen less consciously, but allows for that first crucial step of recognition. Then use whatever action (or inaction) plan developed for that situation. If unexpected challenges come up, take special note of the qualities and details of the situation for future reference, use a relaxation or grounding technique, and use an open-ended, flexible strategy. To the extent possible, pay attention with an observing part of your mind to what is happening with the expectation of future analytics.

6. Appraisal: When you have a moment, jot down some notes on paper or using your favorite tool. If you are sure you will remember important details, just make a mental note.

Set a timeline so you remember to come back and review what happened. Using the same basis of recognition, gratitude and acceptance, go though what happened. Consider changes in perspective, such as what you thought was happening and what you now think. Notice what pleased you and what displeased you. Notice if you are more curious or more blaming. It is especially important not to pressure yourself at this point, as the appraisal part itself is a triggering situation. It's fine to quit in the middle of doing this or leave off for later. It doesn't matter.

An important quality which may build over time is the sense of self-efficacy, as agency with oneself becomes more collaborative and integrated, self-talk becomes more encouraging while remaining realistic and less like an external criticizing voice. Optimism becomes more credible and realistic. Appraisal makes recognition easier and more rewarding, as results accumulate and setbacks start to feel better.

These steps build upon one another to comprise a cycle of change:

Grant H. Brenner
Source: Grant H. Brenner


Recognition Theory

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Motivational Interviewing