We all fall short of our own expectations sometimes. Whether we expect ourselves to maintain a strict exercise routine or we demand a high level of emotional control at all times, we are human. We mess up. We make mistakes.
What’s important is not the particularities of the mistake, but how we respond to it. Think for a second, when you slip up, how do you respond?
Do you beat yourself up or brush yourself off?
When you respond by beating yourself up, you putting yourself down. You make yourself feel worthless. You shame yourself. In an indirect way you tell yourself that unless you perform every time you’re not worthy of love. Love from yourself, love from others.
When you brush yourself off, you acknowledge the failure but you contextualize it. You realize that this is one time and that’s all it reflects. This one shortcoming does not mean you’re destined for a lifetime of failure. It means you messed up and that you’re going to try again next time.
When you brush yourself, you affirm your worthiness
When you show yourself love you create a model for everyone around you. You show your partner, friends, family, colleagues and everyone else that you’re worth loving because you love yourself first. And when people see that you cherish yourself exactly as you are, it gives them permission to love themselves too. No one has ever caused any pain by loving themselves ruthlessly, but plenty of pain has been caused by people beating themselves up over little things.
But if I don’t beat myself up, how will I learn?
Get ready for a big, CRAZY-sounding idea, because this is going to shock you. Making ourselves feel shame in order to increase our motivation doesn’t actually work! It is a lie we were sold as children. Try to remove yourself from the culture you were raised in and think about it for a minute. If you were trying to inspire someone else to make some improvements in their life, would you start by chastising them over their current state? Or would you compliment them on what they do right, tell them you’re proud of them for their progress so far, and underline your commitment to their continuing self-improvement?
We often fall into the trap of treating our friends, acquaintances, even strangers with far more kindness than we treat ourselves. Women especially have been told that our natural state is to feel badly about ourselves and that this is a good thing because it encourages us to improve. I disagree.
I think when we bring ourselves down we lower our chances of improving. We are saying to ourselves that we aren’t worth it, so why should we keep trying? We create a negative feeling around something that we’re trying to improve, like our bodies or our emotions. If you are trying to stick to an exercise plan and you miss a day and I spend that day shaming yourself over missing it, you are creating a negative connotation between yourself and your ability to exercise. You create doubt about your future, when you should be celebrating the days that you stuck to the plan. Then, on the next day you make it to gym, you should celebrate like hell that you made it!
But if I always forgive myself, won’t I keep making the same mistake?
There is a real risk that if you spend too much time forgiving yourself over your mistakes you might keep making them. If you keep telling yourself that it’s ok when I slip up and eat cookies, then the next time cookies come into your orbit, you might just go ahead and have an extra, right? This isn’t so much an issue with forgiving yourself as it is losing sight of your goal. If you want to change your diet and you’re committed to that above everything else, the cookies won’t have any power over you. So when the plate gets passed around: remind yourself you are loved and that you have a bigger, longer-term goal in mind, and pass them on.
Reminding yourself that you are loved (by yourself, by the people in your life, by the universe) should serve to support you in meeting your goals. Being loved is a reason to look out for yourself, to eat a healthy diet, to exercise, to gain control of your emotions. Whatever it is that your expect from yourself, you expect it because you believe it’s what’s best for you, and you are worth the best.
We don’t need to be hard on ourselves in order to improve. We need to love ourselves so that we know we are WORTH improving.
Now there’s a caveat here. If you find yourself falling short of your expectations regularly then you have a choice to make: you can change your expectations or you can change your behavior. Which will be easier to change depends on the context, but something has got to give.
Let’s say your expectation is that you wake up every day and work out, but you don’t regularly do it. This is a recipe for disaster! Not only will you be disappointed in yourself for not doing it, you’re dis-incentivizing working out every time you associate it with failure: Why should you get up and try when you’re only going to fail again tomorrow? You should be ashamed, how did you think you could actually succeed? You’re not worth even trying for…
See how easy is it to start going down the path of beating yourself up? It takes way more time and attention to brush yourself off. If it feels selfish or self-serving at first that’s fine keep at it!!! Eventually you’ll see for yourself that it pays off and it will start to come to you naturally.
How does this apply to sex and relationships, Caitlin?
I’m so glad you asked! Typically what’s true for the areas in our life that we want to intentionally improve (our bodies, our diets, our careers) is also true for those areas we think should just “happen naturally.” The majority of people do not set goals for their romantic relationship because of this false belief.
Imagine a world where in addition to working out, we went out of our way to be kind to our partner one every day. If every morning you thought of something you could do to make your partner feel wonderful, how quickly would your relationship improve? How quickly would the whole world improve?
Ok, but when do I start brushing myself off?
On the other hand, how frequently do you make a mistake when it comes to your relationship? You don’t assume your partner is doing their best, you fail to give them the benefit of the doubt, or show them patience when they need it. Many of us are harder on our partners than we are on anyone else. Yet we sometimes miss the opportunity to thank them, congratulate them or cherish them.
No matter how much we grow we sometimes fall back on old patterns, especially in our romantic relationship. We forget our partner is not our ex. We get defensive or act immaturely. We make assumptions, fail to extend our trust, act selfishly. We get tripped up. We cause unnecessary pain. We are humans, after all. And so are our partners, and they are capable of making the same mistakes we are.
This is where the brushing off comes in. Just as important as brushing yourself off after an accidental candy binge, it’s important to brush yourself off when you make a mistake in your relationship. Apologize for it and for the pain it caused and then let it go. It does your partner no good for you to wallow in your own screw up. And yet we do! It’s as if we are trying to prove just how sorry we are by flagellating ourselves. Our partner might even support us punishing ourselves, depending on how deeply we hurt them. But this has to stop if we are ever going to recover and learn from our mistakes.
The next time you make a mistake in your relationship, follow these steps to get back on the path:
1. Acknowledge the mistake. Name it. “They way I responded to you was really immature”
2. Take ownership of it. “That was my fault, I should have listened without becoming defensive”
3. Apologize for it. “I am truly sorry that I acted that way and that my actions hurt your feelings”
4. Let go of it. “I promise that now I know better, I will do better in the future”
5. Demonstrate your gratitude. “Thanks for sticking with me and helping me grow”
Once you’ve completed this process (say it with me) go ahead and brush yourself off. Remind yourself that you are loved and that you are worth loving. Demonstrate for your partner how you want to be loved by fiercely loving yourself. And most importantly, remember that tomorrow is a new day to get up and try again.