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  • Jenny Simon MC, LPC, PhD

Are we being too hard on ourselves?

“She had locked something away, something deep inside. A truth that she had once known, but chose to forget. And she couldn't break free.” Dom, Inception: The Shooting Script

“You are not responsible for the idea that destroyed her.

And if we are going to succeed in this, you have to forgive yourself

and you're going to have to confront her.

But you don't have to do that alone.”

Ariadne, Inception: The Shooting Script

A gift of this pandemic has been a rediscovery of transformational films, courtesy of Netflix. In 2010, I was finishing my dissertation and had no time to watch movies, and, over the years, I never got around to seeing the ones I missed. So, I had some catching up to do during this quarantine.

One of those movies I recently watched was Inception, written and directed by Christopher Nolan. The lead character, Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a professional dream manipulator, going in and out of other people’s dreams. During the film, we learn that Dom’s subconscious anxiety keeps getting in the way of his dream travel. Dom is haunted by his deceased wife, Mal. She shows up over and over again, ruining his best laid plans…

But this isn’t a true ghostly visitation. Mal is not haunting him. Dom is haunting himself.

Just as our own minds do in real life, Dom, pushed by HIS OWN guilt, has mentally recreated his deceased wife. He inserts her into every dream. Dom feels guilty about what happened in their relationship, so HE creates a projection of her in his dreams. Only when he finally faces her and voices his guilt and the role he played in her life and death can he escape what he has created.

Inception reflects a truth about our own subconscious anxiety. What do we bring up day after day, ruminating on things that happened years ago? Just like Dom, we need to do the deeper work, so we can stop being sabotaged and haunted by our own personal guilt.

A few years ago, I bought a popular self-help book that examined the topic of forgiveness. To be honest, I never actually read the book. It sat on my shelf for a year and half. I barely even cracked it open. Eventually, I donated it.

The fact is forgiveness is hard. Self-forgiveness is even harder. Which is why we don’t do it. How do we administer self-forgiveness and let go of the things we blame ourselves for?

It is easy to let guilt and self-blame play on repeat in our minds or allow our inner critic to beat us up for every word we’ve ever said and everything we’ve ever done. Being hard on ourselves is as easy as breathing. It is much harder to look at ourselves and forgive. Sometimes it feels impossible. What does it take for me to say, “It’s ok that I hurt or offended someone.” Because, it’s not. It’s not ok…so what do we do?

Our minds are just like Dom’s mind. We constantly try to remember and fix what we think is broken. We walk around with monotonous, inner bullies, beating ourselves up day in and day out for something we said, did, or failed to do. We keep bad memories alive to protect us from repeating past mistakes, the things we said and did that we now regret.

This self-judgement is born of the ego. When the safety of the ego is threatened, we create these judgments. Unconsciously, for example, I may say, “I don’t trust myself. I will fall in love again. So, when I meet someone nice, I will be a jerk and sabotage the relationship. Then, no one can hurt me.” This self-evaluation happens subconsciously. We aren’t even aware that the ego has this kind of control. The ego is protecting us from getting hurt in the same way in the future. It says, “Remember this. Don’t do it again.” Ironically, we are being too hard on ourselves, trying to stay safe by feeling “less than.”

No one wants to look at what they are doing wrong. Right now, during this time of pandemic and economic hardship, we are tired, raw, annoyed, and sensitive. Why would we want to look at how we have hurt or judged ourselves? We have a global inability to control anything. So why should we care about mending or healing?

The answer is simple: We feel bad, and we deserve to feel better.

As humans, we try to avoid the things that threaten us, we leave our bodies where we feel the pain. We need to come back into our bodies and feel peaceful. But we can’t feel better, if we are constantly telling ourselves that we did something wrong.

Just like Dom in Inception, our PERCEIVED failings keep us stuck in a feedback loop, replaying emotional patterns and guilt over and over again, which ultimately sends us into depression or stokes anxiety. Positive thinking isn’t going to stop this feedback loop. That would simply be putting a bow on a broken, sad plant.

Of course, most of us would rather stay focused on our strengths. But the real work begins when we look at the internal patterns that cause us discomfort.

The first step is recognizing the problem. We must acknowledge “what is happening” before we can change it. This recognition can come by journaling, by asking for feedback from loved ones, or by practicing mindfulness, which will help us see ourselves repeating a pattern.

We may not have any control over external problems, like a worldwide pandemic, BUT we can change our INTERNAL situation. We can start by getting curious and asking, “What do I project into the world? What am I avoiding? How am I hard on myself? How am I haunting myself?”

Although it’s scary to try something new, we already are trapped in a loop of bad feelings, so we might as well try to feel better. Start with a self-inventory. Let’s do an experiment by looking at our discomfort. How are we sabotaging ourselves right now? What do we need to dissolve? Say out loud, “It’s ok. Whatever is here, whatever it is, let me see it.”

Stop for a minute and look inside. Do you recognize a recurring, repetitive pattern that seems impossible to change? Some examples might be:

  • I sabotage relationships

  • I miss deadlines

  • I make bad choices

  • I eat too much

  • I stay up too late

  • I hate my body

Once you identify a pattern, see if you can explore it with love and compassion. Look at it with a sense of softness. If you saw this pattern in a friend, how would you let them know about it? Meeting this inner critic with kindness and trying to understand why we are hard on ourselves is the first step to gaining inner peace.

Go get your journal and write down the pattern you noticed in yourself. Then, explore these questions: “What am I judging? What am I avoiding? What do I not like about myself?”

Can you fill in the blanks below?

“When I do______________________, I think I am keeping myself safe.

I embrace and love myself when I _______________________.

I am just trying to____________________________.

I will notice it in a kind way when I judge myself about ______________.

How can I begin to let this judgement go?”

Here is an example:

I am judging my overeating. I am beating myself up that I ate an entire pizza. When I judge myself about overeating, I think I am trying to keep myself safe. I get it. I’m mad, and I don’t want to gain weight. Instead, when I judge myself harshly, I’ll stop and embrace and love myself. I care about my health…that’s why I’m concerned. Going forward, I will notice, in a kind way, when I am judging myself about my health.

Your pattern may involve another person. Ask yourself, “Who hurt me? What do I need to let go of?

Try to fill in the blanks below:

"____________________hurt me. I keep remembering it over and over again to try and protect myself, but my protection has become painful. Can I let a part of this hurt go?

I will let this piece go: _____________. I will remind myself when I replay this hurt in my mind that I have let this go. I will no longer use something someone did in the past to hurt me today. How can I begin to heal this?"

You can also use the same approach when looking at what you’ve done to someone else:

"When I hurt ___________________________, I felt bad, and now I keep beating myself up.

I need to let this go, as it isn’t helping me or the person I hurt. What do I need to do to make peace with this person?"

Start simple…go with the first, obvious thought that pops into your mind. Keep the answers simple, too, and childlike. That is how they are stored in our brains.

Can we start to love the challenging, annoying parts of ourselves as much as we love our strengths?

Notice throughout the day when you are beating yourself up, and write down the words you say to yourself, such as, “I am broken. Something is wrong with me. I make bad choices. I am annoying.”

How often do you judge yourself in just one day?

Throughout this next week, notice how often you repeat the mean words. And remember, as you recognize this critical voice, the way things are now is NOT the way things will continue to be. Once we become aware of how we are mean to ourselves, we can start to let the self-punishment go. Once we see how we treat ourselves, we can decide to let go of thoughts that aren’t loving or supportive. In this activity, we are paying attention to a part of ourselves that we normally don’t pay attention to. This creates a pathway to change.

The truth is, we are wearing so many masks, we have no idea who we are. We want to manage these masks by laying a mask of positivity on top of a hurt one. But positive thinking is a band aid. Go deeper and see the real. Let’s look at a challenging pattern with kindness. Take one small step by looking at our pain. Once we see the pain, we can and must nurture and forgive ourselves, with self-love and self-compassion. William Irwin Thompson astutely said, “We become what we hate.” Let’s stop hating and beating ourselves up. The world is already challenging enough right now.

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