You can picture the scene: I’m standing in front of the mirror, arguing with myself. Suddenly tempers reach a pitch and I floor myself with a left hook. “Get up, you bastard,” I scream at myself, “take your punishment like a man!” Groggily I get to my feet, only to take a cross right and a swift uppercut in a rapid combination, my hands now taking control over me. My feet are about to collapse under me, but before they can – pow! A straight left to the point of the chin and I drop like a stone, out cold. My alter ego has hands raised in victory.
OK, stupid I know but you get the idea. The title is in quotes because it’s a line at least one friend says to me at regular intervals, possibly a reflection of my perfectionist tendency though it doesn’t have to be. In these circumstances it’s quite possible that you can score a dramatic success and be praised to the rafters but still feel utterly despondent and curse yourself in several languages, much as I did about the otherwise praised production of Heatstroke.
This reminds me also that my daughter got seven A*s and four As in her GCSEs, grades most students would have killed for, but was still miserable as sin that she didn’t get at least one more A*. Such is life, and all our achievements are relative. Part of the problem is surely that many of us find it increasingly difficult to take praise, often mistaking due praise for flattery and flannel, such that we don’t believe nice things can be said about us for who we are, how we look, what we have achieved. Or maybe we need to compensate for the kind words by hating ourselves for the things we perceive to have done badly?
The flipside of that scenario is that we are not all rhino-skinned people who can shrug off criticism. Many will take comments to heart and punish themselves all the more, believing that they are useless simply because one person has said so, to the extent that one comment out of turn, even if not intentionally wounding, can result in days of misery for the victim who has perceived the comment as a massive slur.
Seldom a day goes by without most people feeling the need to punish themselves in one form or another for having failed to achieve some self-set target, or having screwed something up. It might just be a period feeling down, but just as likely it might involve chastisement and denial of some reward or privilege – though at the extreme end it might lead to self-harming and worse, physically beating ourselves up. We humans can be harder on ourselves than anybody else would ever consider treating us.
On the plus side, setting goals, small and/or large, is a great way to drive yourself towards achieving more than you ever would, but the thing we often don’t do well is how to handle failure. Some find it easy to shrug off an almighty cock-up, learn lessons and move on, but most of us don’t. We spend a period in mourning, dwelling on the failure and harbouring grudges or cringing in embarrassment. It’s unavoidable to spend some while cursing yourself when you set high standards, and better than not caring.
Or is it? Better to relax and not give a monkey’s what happens, or just be kinder to yourself when things don’t go as well as you planned? After all, you can’t please all the people all the time – but being philosophical about failure, relative or absolute, is scant consolation for anyone who can only see the worst side of their delivery. I make no apology for setting myself high standards, but the skill in so doing is to keep the beating yourself up period down to a bare minimum, then moving on to the next thing, and doing even better.
As for the friend mentioned above, she is the worst offender of all for putting herself down, thus proving that we see the good in other people far more readily than in ourselves.