Being hard on yourself might be a way to avoid responsibility, and it can be damaging your relationships and performance. Don’t go jumping to any conclusions. This doesn’t mean you should be hard on yourself for being hard on yourself. It doesn’t mean that you should try to think positive thoughts or push negative thoughts out of your mind. And it most certainly does not mean that you are in control of what you think or that what you think will control how your life will unfold. Instead, it means that in some instances, your mind uses being hard on yourself to avoid difficult situations, where the emotions, responsibilities, or truth can be harrowing, and your mind is trying to protect itself.

Life is hard, from the moment we are born, even before we are born, our bodies, including our brains and minds, are learning how to adapt to our world. They are learning how to defend themselves from both physical and psychological threats. To survive, we learn different ways to manage our behaviors and mold ourselves into a person accepted by our social situations. We are social creatures, and we need to fit in to survive, find jobs, protect, and mate. We start this practice at a young age, behaving in ways that please our parents, so they will give us the attention we all crave. We continue this in high school and into our relationships. We are impacted by the media and television, telling us what is ideal and beautiful. What we need to be to succeed, and what success is.

The reality is that who we are, who we authentically are, may not fit into the mold that defines success. But we want to succeed, we want to be accepted, so our minds start to create mechanisms to control our behavior to help us behave in the ‘right’ way. These are called coping mechanisms, and this is a brief introduction to one of the coping mechanisms. Being hard on ourselves is one of those coping mechanisms.

Being hard on ourselves causes us to behave or not to behave in specific ways. It can help to manage our actions, words, and choices. It can be a deciding factor in what we choose to do for a living or whom we chose to date. For example, if we think that the ideal version of a man has a job in banking, wears a suit, and is fit. Then when we are not all of those things, we might consider ourselves a failure and be hard on ourselves until we pursue that life. Or we might think that the ideal woman is fit, goes to yoga, and works in marketing, again being hard on ourselves until we are pursuing that.

Our mind has an ideal version of who we are supposed to be, which was influenced by countless factors, including parents, friends, society, movies, etc. When we don’t live up to that ideal, we are incredibly hard on ourselves in ways that have little value. What makes things worse is that even if we pursue that ideal, we may find ourselves unhappy, but our minds will be hard on us for considering something else, causing us to feel stuck.

This same mechanism causes us to get stuck in failures and conflict. We may believe that it is weak to admit failure, ask for help, or be vulnerable. So rather than reach out when we need assistance, we are hard on ourselves. We may think things that are out of the box or novel, but we are hard on ourselves because we believe that we aren’t supposed to think the way we do. For example, we think of a solution to a problem, and then we say to ourselves that the idea is stupid, so we say nothing.

Being hard on ourselves is a way to remain silent. It can drive feelings of shame, causing us to avoid difficult conversations. The problem is that when we are hard on ourselves, we often avoid the truth, which prevents us from growing, and after all, growth is scary. When we grow, we go to new places and are likely to get hurt as we try new things. That is how the mind uses being hard on ourselves to prevent being hurt. If we stay in familiar places, we won’t get hurt in the unknown.

It is essential to understand that we can’t stop being hard on ourselves, but we can learn to understand why. We can explore the reasons why we are talking to ourselves the way we do to know how to use that conversation to grow. Being hard on ourselves can also be positive, but that is a subject for a different discussion.

To understand more about being hard on yourself, we suggest a simple yet effective writing activity. Try writing for up to 30 minutes, asking yourself why I am being hard on myself, what is it trying to accomplish? The answer might not be clear, at least not a first, but it is a step to understanding more. Don’t dismiss whatever you find and feel to try this activity more than once.