Stop bullying yourself in the name of self-improvement
There are a million articles about how to do New Year's resolutions right.
How do you create a new habit? How do you stop a bad habit? Do you know how many days it takes to make a new habit? Have you seen what a hundred straight days of focused effort can accomplish? Did you know you should really be worrying about routines, not habits? What are your goals? Are your goals SMART? Are you focused on an end-goal? Forget goals, are you committed to a process? Can you make the parts of your process habits? How do you create a new habit? On and on and on. Every new year, we as a culture renew our commitment to try harder, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get things done by sheer will, and, if all else fails, try these ten hacks to trick yourself into being better.
I hear the New Year call to change, too.
It calls me to lay out a plan to better myself, to render this year better than last year, to rectify the ways I’ve failed and accomplish the tasks I’ve ignored. I spend huge amounts of time trying to figure this out.
In other words, the New Year is a special time to be more unkind to myself, under the guise of self-improvement. And what if that’s my real barrier?
This year, I am going to lay out a different plan.
Because there is a part of me that loves unkindness hidden in self-improvement. This year, I am choosing to look at the self-critical, driving, managerial bully part of me telling me that I have not been and will continue not to be enough, and I am going to say to him, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but could you please step back?”
What that bully part of me wants for me is admirable. He wants me to be better, to do all the things, but more than that, he wants me to be able to avoid pain and shame and disappointment and fear of rejection and failure and all the rest.
The bully just doesn’t realize that he’s setting up the very problems he's trying to solve, and he’s choking up the bandwidth that other parts of me can use to lead me toward what I really want.
The bully is a habit for me. He’s the machinery I’ve built up over the years to try to accomplish goals, but that machine isn’t actually serving me. The gears are just grinding me up.
The way to deal with any habit is to first observe it, and then to pause it.
I first have to watch the machine’s steps to begin to understand it. I have to notice that trying harder just means running the machine faster, producing more of the same. Notice too that trying to fight the machine, to repress it by opposite action, takes a huge amount of energy. Machines don’t get tired, but I do.
What’s left is to change how the machine works. To do that, I have to press pause. After all, if I try to change how a machine works while it’s running, I’m likely to lose a finger! I can’t repress the bully, but I can acknowledge him and ask him to stop. In the language of the Alexander Technique, this is called inhibition. It’s the use of my volition, my power of choice, to pause. In this case, I’m pausing myself in the act of bullying myself, or as some people like to say, shoulding on myself.
"Thank you. Please stop."
One way that I like to pause my machinery, to pause my bully is to say something like: “Thank you. Could you please step back?”
I say thank you because we pick up habits for good reasons. Even if they’re harmful, they are trying to help in some way. When I acknowledge them with gratitude, I’m offering myself some appreciation of that. I’m also communicating to myself that I understand the need the habit is trying to fulfill, and basically saying, “I’ve got this, it’s OK, I can take care of this.”
This makes me (and the habit that is part of me) feel safe in stepping back, in pausing.
That pause creates a space where other parts of me, new possibilities, can emerge. I can tweak the machine. In the absence of the bully, my self-protective critic, I can let the parts of me that want to engage with the world and share with others guide me. The bully itself can shift to become a balanced part of my team, playing director instead of tyrant.
The pause lets my parts naturally coordinate.
If I let go of forcing myself along the “right path,” I gain the possibility of being lead effortlessly into the wondrous unknown.
My resolution this year, then, is not a particular goal or a set of habits or a new routine. My resolution is to release those and so abstain from unkindness to myself. In doing less, I create the space to discover that which actually animates me. I will accomplish more by forcing less.
I still have goals. This post, for example. I decided that I was going to post on January 2 several weeks prior, and that I was going to write whatever I genuinely wanted to say. On December 31, my bully spoke up. It said, quickly and repetitively:
“this-is-about-the-new-year! You should post it before the new year! Definitely not AFTER the new year starts, oh, and what you’ve already written probably needs to be re-written, and look at all these articles about resolutions and habits, shouldn’t you probably sort through all of those and distill them into something actually valuable to people, what people actually want? Yep, definitely should.”
It was the start of a spiral that might have built to enough anxiety not to write at all, not to mention taking me out of the present with my family when it wasn’t realistic to write anyway.
But I noticed it for what it was — a should, a supposed to, a betrayal of my real goal -- and thankfully had already written to myself the plan above. My bully was (with the best intentions of trying to make me my best) effectively shutting me down, keeping me from being myself and keeping me from sharing my experience that might actually connect with one of you and be helpful.
In that noticing, I could legitimately tell the bully “Thank you, now please stop,” and let myself come through the other side to enjoy my time with my daughter and produce this piece to my actual deadline.
Goals this year are pointers and hints, important not because of what they are, but because of what they mean to me.
Goals for me this year are not immutable, arbitrary standards toward which I must stressfully stretch and self-flagellate on failure. So as I set goals for myself, I ask myself what the goal means to me. Then I can observe my machinery, my habits, toward accomplishing those goals, and ask if the machinery is serving what the goal means.
So I might exercise more in the New Year, but not because I am supposed to be healthy and look better (sounds appealing, but the implication there is a very unkind statement about where I am now). I will exercise because it animates me, because a deep part of me is satisfied in motion, in exertion.
If my exercise isn’t animating, the answer might not be consistency (you know, “just do it for the 64 days it takes to make a new habit and then it’ll be natural and you’ll like it!"), but might actually be found in the answers to questions like “Am I trying to do too much?” or “Is there an activity that calls to me, even if I don’t know if I can do it?” or “Do I need help learning how to do this safely, without pain, so I can actually enjoy it?” (Lessons in the Alexander Technique from Whole Bodied are a great way to address these! ;))
Similarly, I might write more in the New Year, but not out of an unkindness born of “shoulds” about needing to build my business or accomplish academically/professionally. I will write because it animates me, because I feel called to share in the hopes that I can be of helpful service to others. I will write because words can pour out of me, in fact they do, if only I stop worrying about how they will be read and allow the possibility that they can serve helpfully. I will write because I believe in dialogue, not because writing is a chance to “get it right” and feed my ego.
I might set deadlines, but what I really must hold myself to is a commitment to noticing the bully and asking him to step back so more of me can come through. If I’m not writing, it’s probably not because I’m not producing a certain minimum of daily words; it’s probably because I’m being mean to myself about what I want to write.
But whatever it is, it’s not about the goal. It’s about what the goal means to me, and if I’m serving that.
I invite you to consider this for yourself: are you being unkind to yourself in the name of self-improvement?
When you think of change, is your habit to think of what “is right,” of what “should be?” Is your habit to be unkind to yourself? There are ways to be unkind that don’t sound like a bully — what would you call the part of you that gets in your way? And what would it be like to acknowledge that part of you, even thank it for what it is trying to do, and then instead of indulging it to pause?
What does your machinery of accomplishment look like, feel like? You can resolve to be less unkind to yourself, to pause that part of you, and listen to what emerges in that space. What emerges? What, then, draws you, entices you, animates you? Can you play with it, and when that unkindness re-emerges, that voice that says “no, that’s not good enough” or “you’ll never actually follow that,” can you again pause to thank it for its protection and ask it to step back?
I’d love to hear what you come up with in the comments section.