Self-Critical? Try Fewer Rules and More Values
I often work with people who appear outwardly successful: high performers in their careers, working relationships with their partners, etc., but who comes to me struggling with feelings of doubt and shame and self-critical thoughts. Sometimes these self-critical thoughts are quietly humming away in their minds and other times these thoughts are loud and intrusive. These people may appear successful in the various realms of their lives but they don't seem to be enjoying it much.
When I explore this on a deeper level with them, I notice a couple of things: 1) rule setting that is very specific and 2) little room for error or variation. Here's an example: Joe (not a real person) feels unhealthy. He's gained some weight, has not been eating well, and his blood pressure is a little high. Internally he berates himself for this. He feels shame and sadness, he has a million highly critical thoughts about how worthless he is and what a failure he is, and he numbs this experience with pizza and wine. Now, Joe is a do-er - he keeps a schedule, creates goals, and makes things happen. This works really well for him at work. So, Joe sets up a rule for himself - gym five days weekly and absolutely no pizza for the next three months.
You already know where this goes - things go well for Joe for about a week, or maybe three weeks. Ultimately, Joe misses the gym one day and then a second day, and because Joe engages in highly self-critical black-and-white thinking, everything is ruined. He could not follow the rule, he has failed, he might as well give up. If this seems familiar, it is because it is the stuff that a million crashed New Years resolutions are made of. It feels pretty rigid too: I need to get healthy, I must follow this rule, there are no options.
Flexibility and values
I would like to propose an alternative way of viewing this, and one which I think is helpful in many aspects of life where we feel we aren't our best, where we feel dissatisfied or notice self-criticism. Relax away from the rule making and instead focus on flexibly moving in the direction of your values.
Let's stick with Joe, as an example. Ultimately, he wants to be healthier. Joe values living life from a place where he feels vital and engaged and his physical health helps him do this. There is nothing wrong with his rule of gym five days per week and no pizza for the next three months but can he broaden and soften this rule? Are there ways he can choose and commit to being healthier on a daily basis regardless of whether or not he makes it to the gym? Perhaps Joe can view the gym and the pizza rule as a guideline instead. "I feel healthier and more engaged in life when I hit the gym daily and stay away from pizza." Feels a little freer, doesn't it? But let's broaden it even further: "Feeling vital and engaged is really important to me and being healthy gets me there. What can I do today that takes me in that direction?" Joe can still go to the gym and stay away from pizza but he now has the flexibility to choose other behaviors as well.
My guess is that at this point a thought has come up - oh yeah, but, Joe isn't meeting his goal of going to the gym five days a week, so what's the point? The point is that as Joe has more flexibility in his thinking and behaviors, he does get to where he wants to go, he feels more healthy and vital, and is less likely to give it all up when he breaks his rule. Chances are that he does go to the gym more and eats less pizza because when he doesn't reach this specific goal, he doesn't abandon his greater value. Measured over time I think that this is real performance - Joe ends up healthier and less self-critical.
Give it a try
Take a look at some of the hard and fast rules in your life. Are there ways to turn them into valued life directions with lots of possibilities? Ways to create some space to move your life in the direction you want with some flexibility?