Have you ever had something you know you need to do and just can’t seem to make yourself do it? All of us struggle with something at some time. It could be eating healthy, exercising, studying, getting a project done, calling that friend you promised… no matter what it is, how do you motivate yourself?
For years I’ve struggled with getting myself to exercise. I have all sorts of excuses, and a lot of them are really good. But the bottom line is that I know I need to exercise to stay in good health but I really don’t like doing it. I’ve tried all sorts of things to motivate me. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I actually learned how to be successful at getting myself to exercise.
The secret? I changed how I motivate myself.
As I’ve worked with clients (and myself) around motivation, I noticed that most of us use fear as a motivator. Now fear is a big bucket that holds a lot of variations that show up as threats, scolding, bribes and even name calling. All of these come from our inner critic.
Does being critical of yourself actually motivate you to achieve your goal?
This is what 5 researchers set out to discover as they ran five separate studies examining the associations of self-criticism and perfectionism in pursuing goals in the areas of weight management, musical performance, and academic achievement.
What they found was that in every study, self-criticism did exactly the opposite. Each time the participants scored higher in self-criticism, their goal achievement went down. They went on to suggest that if self-criticism could be decreased then not only would goal achievement rise but also so would their general well-being.
So, why is this research important for us moms?
Because many of us are using self-criticism as motivation to do the things we want to do and it just isn’t working!
Even though those thoughts are meant to be a “kick in the butt” to get us working on our goals, they have a nasty side effect that ends up sabotaging us.
When your inner critic starts focusing on what you’ve done wrong or how unacceptable or broken you are, or that no one will ever be able to forgive you, or that you won’t ever forgive yourself, she sends out a message to your brain that you are in danger.
When you are in danger, your brain can’t focus on external goals. Because of this, self-criticism is a terrible motivator!
Your brain is built to act on the alarm and ask questions later. It believes what you say to yourself, even when it isn’t true. If you think about the things your critic says to you as being absolutely true, then it’s easy to see why your brain would interpret that as dangerous. For instance, if you are unacceptable, how could you possibly be counted on to take care of yourself or others in your life? If your value is less than others or you believe that you will never be worthy of the good things in your life, then it makes sense that your brain would interpret that as dangerous and push the alarm button.
Your body is wired to respond to danger with a strong physical response.
When your brain perceives a situation that’s threatening, your body goes into fight or flight response mode. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing gets shallow, your face may flush and your stomach gets queasy. All the blood rushes to your core to prepare to fight or run from what threatens you. This is a life-saving response when we are being chased by a ferocious animal or fighting to get out of a burning building
But when the threat is within ourselves- in our self-concept, we actually become the threat and thing we attack is ourselves!
As we take a single situation and hyper-focus on it in a critical way without balancing out the whole perspective of our life and who we are, we end up making it about our character rather than about one specific incidence.
The critic thinks it’s going to make it better by jumping all over it. But in fact, harsh criticism and launching the fight or flight mode makes it all worse.
Our brains go deeper into survival mode when we’re attacked, especially when we’re attacked from the inside. The attack is silent (in our head), it bypasses our usual reasonable thought process. In other words, we get harsher and more critical of ourselves in a way that we wouldn’t with our best friend or someone else that we loved.
And then the cycle starts all over again.
When we attack ourselves, our bodies respond with feelings of dread, fear, and anxiety. We often use these feelings to justify the criticism. “See how bad I feel, it must be true”. The attack is one-sided and totally biased. Of course, it is the Negativity Bias that is running the show, and most of the time we don’t even realize what is happening.
It’s not your fault.
The first thing I teach the women I work with is that it’s not their fault that their critic is so strong in their head. She is only trying to protect them.
It’s actually helpful to show a little compassion to that critic. She has a rough job, always counting mistakes and taking notice of the negative. When we start to see that critic as a misguided protector, she starts to not be so intimidating.
We can teach her to do her job in a different way. She can still notice when things go wrong (if she must), but she must learn a new way to motivate you toward change. This new way is called self-compassion.
Because self-compassion is rooted in love and respect rather than fear, it has the power to motivate us in ways that self-criticism can’t.
*Self-Compassion creates a team environment in which you’re on your own side. Your mind works better when it’s in love rather than fear. This means that you are far more likely to reach your goal if you allow your energy to stay on your own team rather than give it to your critic who is actually going to work against you.
*Self-Compassion allows us room to make mistakes and survive. Who you are is separate from what you do. That means that you can afford to try hard at something you care about even if there’s a chance you might make a mistake or even fail.
*Self-compassion reminds us that we’re valuable. Just as you would never scream and threaten a little child because they deserve to be treated with care, you also deserve the same kind of respect. When you practice treating yourself this way, it is so much easier to see your value.
When you set a goal, it is much more likely that you will give it your all if you know that there is room to make mistakes and still be acceptable to yourself. So many people actually avoid setting goals out of fear of failure. Self-compassion makes it safer to try
Some women have asked if being self-compassionate means that they will be too easy on themselves. “If I don’t get mad at myself, then I might never do it.”
Being compassionate with yourself is NOT giving yourself a pass- or letting yourself off the hook. Instead, it’s the wise way to work with yourself when you make a mistake or experience a setback or failure.
“I’m disappointed, of course, but I can try again. Maybe I can ask for some feedback on ways I can improve my ….”
Do you hear the problem solving that comes into play when criticism is gone? The brain is free to use its higher levels of thinking instead of going into fear mode. Self-compassion is far better at helping us strategize and stay motivated to try again.
So, this is how I learned to exercise, and eat better and do all of the things that I used to struggle with. I switched over from fear to love and ditched the self-criticism for self-compassion. Though I’m never perfect at all of the above, I have room to be human and try again when I fall short of my goals. I exercise because I love my body and want it to feel good, not because I’m afraid I look unacceptable and feel ashamed.
Every day I have a choice to make when it comes to how I talk to myself and so do you!
Knowing there is another alternative to criticism makes all the difference in how we feel about ourselves and how successful we’ll be in reaching our goals.
I’d love to hear what motivates you. Please leave a comment below so we can learn from each other.