“You are a complete idiot.” “How could you make such a stupid mistake.” “You’re always messing up!” You probably wouldn’t say any of these things—at least out loud—to someone else, but how many times have you said them to yourself? This type of language is violent and damaging, yet when we do something that causes us to feel guilty, ashamed or embarrassed, this is often the language we turn to. We don’t even think about it, it’s automatic.
Why do we do it? Because we’ve been conditioned to believe that guilt and shame provide the impetus for learning and positive behavior. Parents often use this tactic as a learning tool. I know I did. But shame and guilt often produce the opposite result. Instead of prompting action, they prompt resistance. How many people have you heard say, “I really should start working out” or “I really should lose weight” or “I really should control my temper better,” and then nothing ever happens.
I agree with Marshall Rosenberg, who in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (Puddledancer Press, 2003) says that when we use the word “should” with ourselves, we resist learning because “should” implies we don’t have a choice. He goes on to say that human beings have a strong need to control their own destiny, to freely choose, so we resist attempts, even internal ones, to force us to change against our wills.
What can we do differently? Rosenberg says that a more productive response is to ask ourselves what unmet need is behind our punishing language. For example, I often get angry with myself when I wait until the last minute to get something done. I’m feeling a lot of pressure and I keep asking myself, “when will you ever learn to plan ahead!” In this instance, my unmet need is for calm and composure.
After identifying the unmet need, the next step is to examine the needs we were trying to address with the actions that produced our guilt or self-punishment. If we also identify our unmet needs there, we can see that there was a positive intent for those actions. Then it’s easier for us to truly forgive ourselves for that mistake and to examine how we can better meet our needs the next time.
When I’m doing something at the last minute, I’m usually doing it because I’ve made too many commitments and I’m running behind. I made those commitments because I wanted to help someone or get something done that was important to me or I wanted to be seen as a competent professional or I wanted to continue building my practice. All those things are important to me. When I remember why I made those commitments, I understand how I got into such a bind and I lose my anger.
Interestingly, forgiving myself this way frees up energy for rebalancing priorities or using the time management techniques I know so well. Perhaps I think of someone to delegate to or I decide something can wait or I renegotiate with a client. Punishing myself just makes me feel guilty. Nothing changes.
I firmly believe that if we are ever to build organizations that are truly respectful and affirming, we must begin with ourselves. By learning to change the way we talk to ourselves, by turning violent language into the language of learning, we can see ourselves and consequently everything else in new and more productive ways.
Plum Cluverius is an executive and leadership coach in Richmond, Virginia. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free half hour consultation.