I’ve been reading a lot lately about how the science of personal change is being researched, and the conclusions that are being drawn. Among them is the idea that being self critical and being hard on one’s self actually does very little to alter negative behaviors and bad habits. Lots of times, the research says, it actually pushes us towards the things that bring about our failings and disappointments. It has to do with the way our brain is hardwired to deal with stress.
One technique mentioned over and over again is self-compassion. Being kind with one’s self in the face of failure or regret has demonstrated more positive long-term benefits than practically any other technique studied. It does more to reinforce will power, alleviate guilt and self anger, improve performance and create success than harsh self-criticism, even when that criticism is positively motivated.
I’m a hard self-critic. Always have been. It is the way I was brought up, which I suspect is the way a lot of people were brought up. Success and achievement only comes from hard work, sacrifice, discipline, and goddamn character. If you fail, it’s because you are weak or lazy or stupid. This is always a self-directed criticism; I don’t think or feel this way about other people. When they fail I have lots of encouragement and support. I take it easy on them (even when I have to be stern and point out why they are failing), and I tell them to take it easy on themselves. I point out how many times Ford and Edison failed, I point out it is part of the human condition to struggle, I tell them in the big scheme one tiny misstep is not a big deal… get back in the ring… get back on the horse… reach for the next level…. For other people, I have tons of compassion, understanding and support.
But not for myself. And the way I feel about myself when I fail is how anyone would feel if there was an audience there to harangue and deride them, tell them how much they suck and what a waste of time they are. And I push against those thoughts and try to rise above them and set myself back on a path and struggle to succeed again. But the voices are still there, I can even hear them holding their breaths in anticipation of my next cluster-fuck. Ooooo, I want those voices to see how wrong they are. Ooooo, I want to power through and crash forth and succeed against all the obstacles and in defiance of all the rules so I can rub the voices’ noses in it.
And I don’t need a Harvard Health study to show me how ineffective that mentality is.
I’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to treat myself the way I’d treat another person; with compassion and understanding and support. I’m going to write a series of personal letters to myself, pointed and current, but perhaps from a future me. Not like futureme.com, I’m not writing letters now for myself to read later. This will be a future me that can look back on the struggling me and offer wisdom, understanding, compassion, and advice. I want this to be the voice in my head and heart, a voice of kindness, that begins to replace the voices of self-criticism and hurt.
The letter format is based upon Kelly McGonical’s Neuroscience of Change, and in turn is based upon a study in which the letter writing practice was the only method of self compassion training offered. The participants wrote themselves a self-compassion letter every day for one week, spending about 10 or 15 minutes a day on each letter. This process improved the participants’ happiness and lessened their depression not only for the week they were writing the letters, but all the way through a 6 month follow up (one presumes they were not writing letters every day anymore, perhaps once a week or once a month…). It has also been shown that people who practice self-compassion are actually more successful at reaching their goals. People on diet programs lost more weight than was typical, people trying to quit smoking were more successful.
So, let me change the energy of my efforts from ones that have not been successful to ones that are more likely to succeed (already the voices are at work, “pussy, whimp, softie”, I can hear them muttering). For one week I am going to identify areas in which I am feeling stressed and unhappy about things in my life, then sit down and write a letter to myself. A compassionate letter from a future me, written in the 2nd person, expressing understanding for what I am struggling with, and understanding for how it makes me feel. I’m going to remind myself that no one is perfect, the challenge is part of the trial, and look at Edison and JK Rowling and James Dyson and Churchill. Then I’m going to talk to myself as I would someone else about guidance, solutions, support, and positiveness. And I’m going to do this as if it were a future me. The person writing this letter is someone looking back with wisdom and love on this present person and what he is going through, even expressing gratitude for the struggles and challenges I’m facing now and how they helped me to become the future me that I am (uh-oh, infinity loop of new-self-old-self coming up!).
Anyway, at the end of the week, I want to briefly review and discover if this exercise has done at least 3 things for me:
- Am I happier, less stressed, and less depressed about how things are in general in my life? Do I see my failures with more kindness and understanding, vs harshness and condemnation?
- Do I have a less myopic view of my life and goals; do I have a better knowledge of what is and what is not under my control? And am I handling those situations in a more positive and proactive way?
- (Probably the most significant) Am I behaving in a way that is in concert with my goals? Am I breaking through the barriers and bad habits that I have been struggling against? Am I succeeding instead of failing?
There are a couple of other simple things I’m going to do regarding meditation and affirmations, but the 7 letters will be the core of this experiment.