How to stop beating up on yourself (and teach students to not do it as well)

THE ROLE OF "RUTS"

We all have cognitive, emotional and behavioral “ruts” we’ve created in our brains from practicing and rehearsing thoughts, feelings and actions over our lifetimes. These often started from hearing and seeing others, like our parents, say and do things to us. “Ruts” make thoughts, feelings and actions automatic. They can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on what thoughts, feelings and actions they lead to. “Ruts” are why people recreate their pasts, and why their histories often become their destinies. That can be good news or bad news depending on what our history has been.

SHOULDING ON OURSELVES

Many of us have grown up with others “shoulding” on us. There were many times when we heard “You should….” and “You shouldn’t….” do certain things, or be certain ways. So it’s perfectly understandable that we “should” on ourselves. It’s “rutted” in our brains and we do it automatically. As they say, “Children learn what the live”.  When things become automatic we lose sight of the fact that we always have choices as to how we want to think about or look at anything, how we want to feel, and what we say and do.  

The words “should” and “shouldn’t” can be used in a variety of ways. A parent for example could just be making a suggestion, i.e. “I think you should study more if you want to get better grades”. However, they often get used in demanding ways, and ways that let people know that they’re not living up to others’ expectations in some way.  People will often feel some degree of shame and/or guilt after being “should” on. Some become “turtles” when others “should” on them, and suck into their shells and wallow in shame and guilt. Others become “rattlesnakes” and coil, rattle and even strike out at those “shoulding” on them.

SHAME AND GUILT

Shame and guilt have obviously played some important role in our evolution as a species - it's why we still have the capacity to generate them. It's probably as a counterbalance to anger and anxiety, the two halves of our fight or flight response. People throughout history have too often gotten carried away with their anger, causing needless suffereing and even death. Anger and anxiety are excitatory emotions, shame and guilt inhibitory. That said, we too often have people who are overly and needlessly laiden with shame and guilt because others have "should' on them too much, and they "should" on themselves too much.

REGRET AND REMORSE

Remorse and regret would be more helpful forms of emoiton than guilt and shame. Regret and remorse can make us want to do better next time, to avoid past mistakes, and to make amends to others. Shame and guilt too often end up being too much, and can play out in some unhealthy, self-defeating, even self-destructive ways. People use and abuse alcohol and drugs, drop out of school, and some even take their own lives because of shame and guilt. Shame and guilt are why people refuse to seek or accept help that is available to them.

Shame and guilt, and regret and remorse are not simply stronger or weaker versions of the same thing. They are qualitatively different emotions. The reason is that that come from different cognitive origins.  Shame and guilt come from "shoulding" on ourselves after some life event. A "should" is really a demand of ourselves. Regret and remorse come from simply “wishing” we had, or had not done something. A "wish" is just a desire. When we set our THINK themostat at "wish" and desire, our FEEL thermostat ends up at regret and remorse. But if we turn our THINK thermostat up to "should" and demand, we end up with shame and guilt. Others "shoulding" on us can be a trigger for us to "should" on ourselves, but some people do it a lot and automaticaly without much provocation from others. For some, it's so automatic and habitual that they even do it in spite of others encouraging them not to.

SHAME LEADS TO ANXIETY

If you “should” on yourself after events, you’ll be more likely to generate anxiety in the future. We have too many people generating more anxiety than is helpful or necessary as well – too many feeling overly stressed out, and too many with anxiety disorders. This often comes from people “shoulding” on themselves after a life event. If you believe and tell yourself you didn’t live up to expectations after past life events, it’s easier to imagine not doing so again in the future.

Shame and guilt come from making demands of yourself, or “shoulding” on yourself after a life event. Anxiety comes from making demands of yourself before life events. People often will think or say out loud, “I HAVE TO….” do something before upcoming events. (The converse of this is “I CAN’T….”). They are more likely to think that if they have “should” on themselves in the past.  For example:

After the last test a student said:  “I should be getting better grades than I am. I shouldn't be getting just a C”

Before the next test:  “I have to do well on this test. I have to get an A. I can’t get any wrong”

By telling themselves they HAVE TO do well, and CAN'T get any wrong, they set themselves up for being more likely to should on themselves afterward. Many times, the essence of the demand people make of themselves is "I HAVE TO be perfect and do everything perfectly. I CAN'T make any mistakes". That's a standard that sets people up to find more fault in what they do afterward, and should on themselves. For example:

After that test:  “I should have done better. I shouldn’t have gotten so many wrong. I should have studied more”

People can get into a vicious cycle of shame and anxiety in this way – with one leading to, and precipitating the other.

SHAME CAN MAKE PEOPLE "RATTLESNAKES"

When people feel shame, everyday life events start to feel like bigger threats than they are, or need to be. People can even plug into their fight or flight response - either become anxious or angry. They can become either "turtles" or "rattlesnakes". Low self-esteem is really shame about the past and anxiety about the future because of it. The "rattlesnake" posturing is common with other peoples' comments. When someone is already feeling shame, other peoples comments can be perceived as bigger threats than they really are. When others persist in their comments or even double down on them, it's the equivalent of poking a real snake with a stick. The snake starts to strike out, which is what many people do when criticized by others. But the origin of this reaction is shame. 

WE CAN'T GET RID OF RUTS, WE CAN ONLY MAKE NEW ONES

There's an important thing to remember whenever we try to change in any way. Once you create “ruts”, you can’t get rid of them. You can only create new ones and hope they can compete for use with our old ones. We will always retain the tendency to “should” on ourselves, and make ourselves feel more guilty or ashamed than is helpful or necessary. People can also get in the habit of always thinking and telling themselves that they “HAVE TO” do things.

The situation with ruts is much like when cities create new alternate roads for people to use. They often leave the old ones in place. They just offer people a new and hopefully better way to get where they want to go. However, people can, and often do mindlessly go their old ways, get stuck in traffice, and regret it.

THOUGHTS CAUSE FEELINGS, NOT EVENTS

Most people see what happens and what others say and do as the cause of how they feel. Just listen to the way people talk about how their feelings come about, i.e. "He made me feel so guilty". This needlessly puts them at the mercy of life events and others, and often results in them feeling worse than they need to, or than is helpful, for longer than necessary. More importantly, it causes them to miss many opportunities to feel better.

It’s really what we choose to think about what happens that really determines how we feel, not what happens. We always have a choice as to how we want to think about, or look at anything, including ourselves. The reason is simple. There’s always more than one way to do so, no matter what we’re talking about. Some ways we might choose will make us feel better, others worse. When we "should" on ourselves, we technically make a choice because there are other ways we could have looked at what happened and talked to ourselves. "Ruts" can make "shoulding" on ourselves so automatic that we don't see that there's any other choice. However, we always have a choice, and that's our ticket to feeling better. 

With this in mind, what can we do about a tendency to "should" on ourselves?

RECOGNIZE THAT YOU SHOULD ON YOURSELF

First you have to become more aware of your self-talk and that you "should" on yourself a lot. Simply learning about "shoulding" can help you do that. Then there are some short and to the point self-instructions you can practice and rehearse, and rut in your brain so they become automatic. These can act like grammar check on a computer if they do.

1)      “Stop shoulding on yourself. It just makes you feel shouldy”

2)      “It’s not good to should on yourself or others”

3)      “I’m not going to should on myself today”

PUT YOUR BEHAVIOR WHERE YOU WANT YOUR ATTITUDE TO BE

Then there's a technique called "Putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be". In other words, practice talking out loud the way you want to think. You can follow these statement with “I just WISH I had….." or "I just WISH I hadn’t……” Simply WISHING you had done something different will cause you to generate regret and remorse instead of shame and guilt. You'll turn your THINK thermostat down a notch, from a demand of yourself to a desire, from "shoulding" to just "wishing". This will bring your FEEL thermostat down from shame and guilt to regret and remorse.

UNCONDITIONAL SELF-ACCEPTANCE (USA)

Here’s an alternative way of looking at what you think, feel, say or do that I’ve found helpful. It can be a way for you to choose to look at what you think, feel, say and do, have in the past, or might in the future.

“Anything I think, feel, say or do is understandable, given that I’m human, fallible, and what I’ve been through in my life so far. Put others through the exact same things and they’d probably think, feel, say or do the same. I’m not the first person in human history to think, feel, say or do that, and I certainly won’t be the last. I’ll always have a lot of company, no matter what it is, which means it’s simply part of being human to think, feel, say and do what I did.  No one’s perfect, everyone makes mistakes. We all do the best we can at the time. Yes, we often could or could have done better, but we’re all FHB’s or fallible human beings who at times think, feel, say and do things that make our lives, and sometimes the lives of others worse instead of better. Welcome to the human race.“

Looking at ourselves this way helps us have what Dr. Albert Ellis called having USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance. Looking at what others think, feel, say and do this way is what he called having UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance. USA helps prevent and combat the shame and guilt. UOA helps temper our emotional responses to others. It doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with what others think, feel, say or do, or even tolerate it. It just means we accept it as understandable given that they are also human, fallible, and what their life experiences have been.

Like anything else, it will take practice and rehearsal for this new way of looking at things to become a “rut” in your brain, and automatic. It like memorizing the words to a song, or the lines of a school play. The more you practice and rehearse, the more they'll be at "the tip of your tongue". The more you practice this way of looking at things, the more this new way can compete with “shoulding” on yourself. But you will always be able to slip into your old ruts for “shoulding” on yourself, and probably will. The last thing you want to do is “should” on yourself for “shoulding” on yourself. It’s understandable to slip into old “ruts”. It’s part of being human, and an unfortunate byproduct of the same brain physiology that allows us to do so much, and grow.

CHALLENGE DEMANDS OF SELF

Remember that shame and anxiety are often connected, and one can lead to another. If we make demands of ourselves before an event by telling ourselves we HAVE TO (or CAN'T) do something, we are more likely to “SHOULD” on ourselves afterward. You can short circuit any anxiety you might generate by asking some simple questions. For example:

1)       “Why do you HAVE TO?”

2)      “You HAVE TO, or just want to?”

And practice answering these questions with the only correct answers:

1)      “I don’t HAVE TO, I just want to.”

2)      “I don’t HAVE TO do anything (except die and pay taxes, as my grandfather used to say)”

If you’re telling yourself “I CAN’T….” do something, or let something happen, you can practice and rehearse asking:

1)       "Why CAN’T you?"

2)       "You CAN’T, or just don’t want to?"

And answering with the only correct answer:

1)        "I can, I just don’t want to"

With practice and rehearsal, these questions can become automatic, like grammar check on a computer. But if you want these new ways of thinking or looking at things to become automatic, you have to practice and rehearse – there’s no short cut.

You can also employ the strategy of “putting your behavior where you want your attitude to be”. Practice talking the way you want to think. For example, instead of “I HAVE TO….” practice saying “I really just WANT TO…. I don't HAVE TO, but I really WANT TO..." 

USE NON-JUDGMENTAL SELF-EVALUATION

There are also three simple questions you can practice and rehearse asking yourself. Getting in the habit of simply asking these questions can be a great substitute for "shoulding" on yourself.

1)      What do you really want?

2)      How’s it working for you to think, feel, say and do things the way you do now?

3)      If you keep thinking, feeling, saying and doing what you do now, will it be easier or harder to get what you really want in the future?

Everyone has a right to want whatever they want. The important question is whether the way we choose to think, feel, say or do things now works for us or doesn’t – and to what extent it does or doesn’t. The answers to the 2nd and 3rd questions are usually obvious. We just need to be clear about the answer to question 1, and ask 2 and 3. 

Here’s a variation of these questions.

1)      How do you want to feel?

2)      How’s it working for you to think or look at things the way you do now? To “should” on yourself, and beat up on yourself?

3)      If you keep thinking and looking at things the way you do now, and keep "shoulding" on yourself, will it be easier or harder to feel the way you’d like to in the future?    

"IT'S MY CHOICE...."

There are a few other statement you can practice and rehearse so they become rutted in your brain, and automatic. They are important reminders of the power and control we each can have over our emoitonal destiny. We often lose sight of this power and control, so it can help to remind ourselves. One is:

“It’s my choice how I want to look at things, including myself”

And because thoughts we have about life events and ourselves really determine how we feel, it’s also true that:

“It’s my choice how I want to feel, about myself, or anything else”