After a relationship breakup it's not uncommon to wonder, what was my role in the relationship's downfall? What can I do differently in future relationships to avoid going through this again? While those types of questions reflect a healthy dose of self-exploration and growth, some of us fall into a not-so-healthy place of criticizing, blaming and rejecting ourselves. In short, we become our very own personal bullies.
We know we've slipped into self-bullying if our inner dialogue sounds anything like this: I screwed up again. I was so stupid to date another person who was emotionally unavailable, unfaithful, selfish, (insert unhealthy relationship quality here). I always fail at relationships. I'm not attractive enough. I'm never going to find someone. You're pathetic for being so depressed over this. Get over it already.
Most of us would agree that talking to someone else that way is absurd (or in some instances, abusive), so why do we feel it's acceptable to talk to ourselves that way? The reasons are varied and often complex. We might trace a tendency towards negative self-talk to an experience (or a string of experiences) earlier in life, in which we were criticized, blamed or rejected. Especially as children, we tend to internalize negative situations, which can cause an early habit of self-bullying.
The root of negative self-talk can also be related to deep-seated fears or unconscious self-sabotaging tendencies, or to a depressed or anxious mood. If beating yourself up is an ongoing habit, it's a good idea to enlist the help of a therapist to uncover why you do it in order to better understand how to stop it.
That said, you can begin to work toward squashing the bully within right now by exploring and practicing the opposite of bullying: compassion. Self-compassion embodies (among other things) recognizing that struggling with life or making mistakes is part of being human, learning to be our own compassionate friend, and using difficult life situations for self-exploration and growth. Self-compassion isn't about letting ourselves off the hook for mistakes. Self-compassion involves forgiving ourselves, certainly, but it also entails accepting responsibility for our decisions and behavior, and taking the initiative to work towards personal growth.
In thinking about your own ability to be self-compassionate, consider the following questions:
Why do you expect yourself to be perfect?
Even if you don't expect perfection, as a self-beater upper you're disproportionately hard on yourself. It's important to remember that making mistakes is a common experience for everyone. If you know a person walking this earth who hasn't made mistakes, please let me know because I'd like to order some tests to see if he or she is human. Also, as top self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff points out, our ways of being are effected by numerous factors, both environmental (i.e. upbringing) and genetic (i.e. a predisposition to depression). By acknowledging that, Neff says, "failings and life difficulties do not have to be taken so personally, but can be acknowledged with nonjudgmental compassion and understanding."
What would you tell a friend in your position?
It's often easier to have compassion for others than for ourselves, and there's always that pesky problem of not being able to follow our own advice. One way to reverse those trends is to notice when you're engaging in negative self-talk and think about what you would tell a friend if he or she was expressing those things to you. You'd likely react with compassion, urging your friend not to be so hard on herself, or helping him to put things into perspective. Practice being your own compassionate friend.
How can you transform negative self-talk into an opportunity for personal growth?
Instead of sitting amidst all of those unkind messages you're firing off to yourself throughout the day, begin to use them in a proactive way. In figuring out what they're rooted in, you might find healing. In examining unhealthy patterns in your life, you might discover new ways of interacting and reacting. In uncovering relationship patterns, you might learn to recognize red flags in future dating prospects before you launch into a relationship that isn't good for you. In making an effort to treat yourself with compassion, you might achieve acceptance for yourself, your suffering, and your mistakes, and subsequently feel peace.
The bottom line is this: You are your own best ally in life, and learning to treat yourself with forgiveness and humanity is vital, especially after a breakup or divorce. It's important to remember, too, that for many of us self-compassion is a learned behavior. Just as with any learned behavior, it takes motivation, effort and time. If you practice being your own compassionate friend, eventually you might find that being self-compassionate becomes a new, automatic habit.
For more information on self-compassion (including a self-compassion scale and exercises to increase self-compassion), visit Dr. Kristin Neff's website: www.self-compassion.org.
To find happiness after heartbreak, visit BounceBack.com.