- Don't worry so much.
- You just need to relax.
- Don't be so hard on yourself.
Most often delivered in an unsolicited fashion, these all deserve a sarcastic and repugnant reply on par with, "Ohh.... I hadn't thought of that, but now that you mention it, sure! I’ll just go ahead and do that.” Okay, sorry, that's just me being an asshole. But seriously, I wish more than anything I could do all three of these things but thus far in life it has been basically impossible. Lately, I have struggled with number three the most: "Don't be so hard on yourself." Ah yes, if I had a Bitcoin for each time I have heard this piece of advice, I would be filthy rich by now.
Since a very young age, I have had myself convinced that I am a constant disappointment, that I'm not living up to my true potential, that I am pathetic, and that I might not be good enough. Seeing these statements in writing, they look like something that a mildly psychologically abusive parent might tell their children. But that is not where I learned to be so mean to myself. Au contraire, I am so fucking lucky that I grew up with wonderful, loving parents who overlooked my cliche rebellious high school years when I crashed our car, snuck out of the house, snuck boys into the house, drank gin out of water bottles and occasionally cheated on my AP Euro homework. Through all of that, they have always told me I am great just the way I am. Somehow, though, I never believed them. I still don't.
I may have grown up in a lot of ways over the past ten to fifteen years, but when it comes to my inner dialogue not much has changed. I still beat myself up, I still drown myself in guilt and shame over the tiniest of things. I shouldn't have eaten that cookie, or had that last glass of wine, I am absolutely disgusting. I shouldn’t have skipped the gym today, I am so lazy. The email I sent to my parents wasn't long or thoughtful enough, I’m such an ungrateful brat. I can't believe I didn't spend the last hour working, What is wrong with me? Why am I so apathetic? How could I possibly lose my keys, I'm such an incompetent fucking loser!
On the bright side... this constant sense of self disdain allows me to brush off criticism from others because nobody can say anything meaner than I have said to myself. In light of this all, trust me, I want nothing more than to be nicer to myself and I have tried many different tactics to quiet my inner critic. Inevitably, nothing seems to work and I end up more frustrated and ashamed than ever before.
Something clicked for me recently, though. The other day, I listened to a pitch from a company who is interested in creating a smart tool to help people quit smoking cigarettes. As they presented their idea, I could relate because this struggle is all too familiar to me (and much too fresh in my mind than I'd like to admit.) What I realized throughout the process of quitting, however, was that there's only one reason why people can't stop smoking; They don't actually want to. Seriously, that’s what nobody is willing to say. If you absolutely can’t, it’s because deep down you don’t really want to.
Here's the dirty secret I haven't admitted before: even though I have been saying otherwise, I haven't actually wanted to "go easier on myself". Though the entire routine regularly makes me feel like absolute shit, often leads to extreme behavior, undermines my confidence, and is probably giving me premature wrinkles, I still indulge in it. You might ask, why not, you crazy masochistic person? Well, it’s because this intense self hatred has served me quite well. The worse I make myself feel, the harder I am willing to work to prevent it. If I didn't dread that burning shame, that self-imposed guilt, the endless stream of insults that run through my mind when I don't follow through, maybe I wouldn't have worked as hard as I have. I motivate myself to work hard out of a fear of failure, a need to prove myself, a desperate desire to achieve my way to happiness. If I really were kinder to myself, I'm terrified I might not be as motivated to succeed. Of course, this sparks a whole new round of disappointment with myself... shouldn't I be able to work hard for the right reasons? How pathetic that I need to motivate myself via negativity instead of a pure desire for success. And the cycle continues.
So here's the key realisation I’m trying to share: I haven't been able to stop being so hard on myself because I haven't really wanted to. I have been too afraid of what might happen if I let it go and chose to work hard out of a genuine desire to change the world and not as a desperate attempt to escape my inner Mean Girl. Not to worry, I still have some pretty stinging insults lined up in the back of my head, but a lot of my recent experiences have given me more confidence in myself. I left Goldman Sachs, I left my friends and family back home, I started a business in an unknown place, I worked alone from my apartment without anyone telling me what to do... and I'm still doing okay. I think it's time to move on and start working toward my goals from a place of love instead of one of fear. It's all so much easier said than done, but I just hope that admitting that I haven't truly wanted to do that until now is the first step in the right direction.