It is surprising and saddening hearing kind-hearted and levelled clients be hard on themselves for behaviours that are not socially desirable, i.e.: having an extra drink at a party and getting a little drunk, having casual sex, having an argument with a loved one, calling in sick at work on a bad day, etc. These are acts that are usually condemned in our society, where everything needs to look perfect and proper and no-one is allowed to make mistakes or have a slip-up. Well, at least this is what Facebook, social media and TV are telling us. But would it really be so unforgivable if we let ourselves go every now and then?
In my therapy room I have come across clients who reprimand themselves for such ‘bad’ behaviours. They end up labelling themselves as ‘bad person’ and try to remedy this by doing the ‘right thing’ and pleasing people. What always strikes me is that there is objectively nothing so wrong with the behaviours clients describe. I am not suggesting they lie or are being too dramatic, as I appreciate and respect that their emotional pain is genuine and real. However, it soon becomes clear to me that they tend to hold very high expectations about themselves. As it always happens when we set unreachable objectives, we miserably fall short of them and this drags us into a vicious cycle of perfectionism: I want to be perfect > I set high standards > I fail to meet these standards > I feel demoralised and a failure > I maintain the high standards… and so on. It is evident that this type of cycle is not functional nor helpful, and it inevitably makes us anxious (‘will I ever meet my standards’?) and/or depressed (‘I will never meet my standards’).
So how do I attempt to help clients presenting with these issues? First of all, I offer a non-judgmental space where they can share their stories with no reservations. Then I help them unpick the supposedly bad behaviours and check whether they are realistically so bad (they might be, but it is vital we explore!) If we establish that the client holds unrealistic beliefs about how they should be or act, then together we explore where these beliefs come from. It should not come as surprise that often these beliefs stem from our childhood or early life experiences. Maybe we had demanding parents, or parents who would not notice us unless we were brilliant or impeccable, or bullying friends, and so on. It is not about investigating who is culpable of what, it is more about embarking on a journey of self-discovery in order to gain insight into why we do what we do. Gaining insight is already a huge achievement that – if met with an open mind – can allow us to rewrite our stories and set new and more realistically rules for ourselves.
We can make mistakes, we can mess things up, we can let people down… But does all this make us unworthy, unlovable or deplorable?
To put it in more prosaic terms: how about you cut yourself a little slack!