I have a little saying framed in my bedroom that greets me every morning when I wake up: “Oh, God, help me to believe the truth about myself no matter how beautiful it is.” I need to be reminded of that because I tend to be too hard on myself. You may be like that, too. Apparently, we humans have what is called a negative cognitive bias, which means that we tend to forget about all the times when things in our lives have gone well but have no problem remembering the royal screw-ups. When your negative cognitive bias kicks in and something goes wrong in your life, you’ll think, “Why do these terrible things always happen to me?” Then, before you know it, the question becomes, "What's wrong with me?" and the judgmental thoughts take on a life of their own.
Of course, not all people have a propensity to judge themselves harshly. Some people are quick to blame others for every stupid thing they’ve done themselves and they never seem to take responsibility for any of their actions.
Most of us are a mixed bag. Sometimes we beat ourselves up, and sometimes we fail to take responsibility for our actions. But we all judge ourselves in some way, and it’s important to examine how and why we do this to ourselves.
Are you one of those people who is unusually hard on yourself? If so, have you ever tried to figure out why? Did you grow up with an overly critical parent? Or were your teachers like that? Your peers? Did you feel like others had high expectations of you that you could never meet? Did you feel like you were never quite smart enough, or good-looking enough, or athletic enough? Were you convinced that you were always lacking in some way?
All too often, the way we see ourselves is a reflection of how significant people in our lives see us. We can allow them to tell us who we are, and believe it in a way that becomes self-fulfilling. I know a guy who once had a music teacher who told him he couldn’t sing and he grew up without ever realizing that he actually had a lovely voice and could sing quite well. It turned out that the music teacher was tone deaf! It’s hard not to let others influence the way we tend to think about ourselves.
And the opposite is true as well. It’s hard not to let the way we think about ourselves influence the way we treat others. People who are especially hard on themselves also tend to be hard on others.
So, how can we keep the way we judge ourselves in perspective? Let me share three ideas for your consideration.
First, we can never really see ourselves as we truly are. Our self-judgment is always distorted. We carry memories around in our brains that we can’t erase, no matter how much we might like to, and they influence how we feel about ourselves. It’s like the juror who hears inadmissible testimony in the courtroom and is then instructed by the judge to disregard it. How can you do that? Our private sense of self is contaminated by all kinds of inadmissible evidence. We need to remember that the thoughts we have about ourselves are not facts. They are thoughts, much like opinions, often distorted by our past experiences. We can never be objective when it comes to judging ourselves. We never have a grasp of the facts; all we have to go on are our thoughts.
Second, it’s important to differentiate ourselves from the messages we may carry around inside us about who we are, whether those have been imposed upon us by others, or they come from someplace deep within us. We like to simplify things by slapping labels on ourselves: I’m a disappointment, I’m fat, I’m smarter than just about anybody I know, I’m a mother, I’m gay. It’s important to recognize that we’re so much more than these one dimensional explanations would indicate.
Finally, know that we all have an inner critic. And our inner critic is not the enemy. It’s healthy to have an inner voice that will let us know when we’ve done something that wasn’t smart, or something that has hurt another person. It’s called a conscience, and to have one is a sign of being human. It allows us the opportunity to feel guilty, something animals have no capacity for. I know guilt has a bad name in our culture. But it’s really a positive thing when it reminds us of our shortcomings that need some attention. It motivates us to grow. Certainly, we all have things about ourselves we don’t like. Our guilt is often be the catalyst we need to do something about it.
That’s guilt. But now, shame is something else. While guilt says “I’ve done something wrong”, shame says, “I AM something wrong.” Shame is about debasing yourself. It’s not about overcoming your weaknesses. It doesn’t lead to growth. It's unhealthy -- self-judgment gone amok.
Self-judgment can be healthy when it includes the ability to accept our weaknesses as a part of who we are, knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes. It's healthy when it transcends the simplistic labels we carry around inside us about who we are. And it's healthy when it acknowledges the fact that the only one who really knows who we are just so happens to be the one who loves us unconditionally as we are.
For when all is said and done, only God’s judgment of us counts. God alone sees us exactly as we are, with all of our strengths and weaknesses, in all of our complexity. And God alone loves us exactly as we are. Unconditionally. Without reservation. Our personal demons may hound us, regrets may haunt us, doubts may hinder us. But those are nothing more than thoughts and they’re unreliable. The never-failing love of God is the truth we can rely on.