Types and Tailcalls

Don't Beat Yourself Up

published on August 25th, 2019

You're beating yourself up when you're extensively scolding yourself inside your head because you're unhappy with something you did or didn't do. It's something I used to do a lot. As I'm growing more conscious around my thoughts, behaviors and habits, I've come to the conclusion that beating myself up is an incredibly ineffective and actively harmful behavior. This view seems now so obvious that it is bewildering that I ever thought differently. I want to write this post as a reminder to myself that I did think that way at some point in time, document why I don't think so anymore and what I think is a better approach to dealing with my failings and shortcomings. I also have a faint hope that this may help some people who haven't embraced this realization or at least by making everyone else chuckle that some people are stuck with this masochistic view for so long and then make a fool of themselves by writing about it.

Why beat yourself up?

Beating yourself up is a form of negative motivation. I thought that wanting to avoid the negative experience of beating myself up would motivate me to do the things I wanted to do. Let's say I have set up a long to-do list of things that I want to accomplish but instead I only do none or a few items on it and am fooling around the internet the rest of the time. At the end of the day, I would beat myself up by extensively reasoning through why this behavior was bad, how I had squandered a precious opportunity and how this behavior would lead to me becoming a complete failure and not reaching my dreams. I thought beating myself up would connect the unwanted behavior (procrastination) with the unwanted experience (beating myself up) and was thus necessary to provide negative motivation for me to stop doing these kinds of things. The idea was that by punishing myself for not doing what I had planned to do I would create an unpleasant experience and that this experience would deter me from acting in this way again in the future.

The guilt procrastination cycle

I am now fully convinced that beating myself up doesn't work. Instead, it lowers my self-esteem and makes the activity I wanted to do riskier. This pretty directly leads to what I call the guilt procrastination cycle. When I procrastinate something, this is usually caused by overwhelm, fear of failure, unclear goals or another inner resistance. When I beat myself up over this behavior, it increases the likelihood of having negative feelings connected with these tasks that I had planned on doing, increasing the risk and pressure connected with that task. That means beating myself up pretty directly contributes to the causes of procrastination.

Looking back, I now recognize that I was an absolute master in jumping into the guilt procrastination cycle during my PhD thesis. My PhD thesis wasn't great in many aspects, I made lots of mistakes, was lacking direction and knew that I wasn't doing a great job. All of this made me feel overwhelmed and unmotivated, so I was on pretty bad path. But I didn't just want to throw in the towel and decided to work through it instead, but ended up procrastinating when I really should have been writing my PhD thesis or completing my research. I used to terribly beat myself up over these procrastinations, created lots of pressure and really made myself feel guilty in an attempt to not procrastinate and force me to research and write. Towards the end, I recognized that this behavior just contributed to my negative feelings around the research and writing, which made me even more likely to procrastinate, which put me in an even worse situation increasing the perceived pressure even more. Ironically my guilt coming from the negative motivation of scolding myself directly contributed to making the situation worse which again directly contributed to an even stronger guilt trip the next time around. This is the guilt procrastination cycle in full force and is one of the main reasons why beating myself up is a terrible strategy.

What's more is that beating myself up greatly lowers my self-esteem which negatively affects my expectation to successfully complete a task. This makes starting the task even more overwhelming as my expectation of success is now very low, which makes this whole thing very unpleasant and procrastination much more likely. Beating myself up not only directly but also indirectly improves the likelihood of procrastination and the lowers my effectiveness and odds of success.

So beating yourself up has many negative effects and it's unlikely to lead to the outcomes, such as more discipline and high-performance, that you want. Don't do it!

Improve your systems instead

So if I don't want to beat myself up, but am still unhappy with my performance, should I just accept this? Is this the end of the road of self-improvement?

I think self-acceptance is an important first step, because it is basically the opposite of beating yourself up. You're telling yourself you're ok and if you don't do that then you're beating yourself up in one way or another. Based on the negative effects of beating yourself up I think just practicing self-acceptance is a much better strategy than the alternative.

At the same time, you probably still want to improve your outcomes and do everything you can to stand a better chance at succeeding the next time around. My current strategy is to instead examine my systems and behavior and to come up with a way to improve my habits around this practice. I have found that this approach is vastly superior to trying to get myself somewhere by negative motivation and pressure.

For example, one challenged I had recently was that I proposed myself to do bodyweight exercises in the morning. However, I often found myself procrastinating the start of the workout and then not having enough time left, which let to skipping the workout. What I did was to think of ways to make it more likely to just move into workout mode which I achieved by placing my workout clothes in the bathroom. So after weighting myself I would immediately get into work out clothes making it more likely for me to work out. This is of course an age-old trick that many people have applied, but I have still found it to be really effective and what's more it doesn't have negative side effect of lowering my self-esteem!


So in conclusion beating yourself up is not effective because it ups the pressure when you're already crumbling under too much pressure and lowers your self-esteem which will make it less likely that you will do better in the future. Instead, working on your systems to automatically pull you in the right direction is a much more promising approach.

I'm still somewhat surprised how long it took me to come to this basic realization, how much I defended the need to beat myself up and how absurd I find this behavior now that I've tried other avenues. This makes me curious about other superior strategies out there which can make me feel both better and become more effective.

Thank you for taking the time for reading. If you have had some similar realizations after ditching an ineffective and limiting behavior for a better approach, I would love to hear it!

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