Changing yourself is a contradiction
Wanting to change yourself is a paradox, a contradiction.
Why is it that you want to change yourself? Most probably to be able to accept yourself more then you do already. And by saying to yourself that you have to or want to better yourself, you are confirming the idea that you are not good enough, that you are not able to accept yourself just as you are now.
So the starting point should not be changing, but rather, accepting.
The way you are is a result of what you brought with you genetically, and from the circumstances later on in your life.
You didn't make yourself. You are the best you can be, based on your genetic possibilities and character traits, and what you have learned in order to cope with the outside world.
Most of the time, patterns that are bothering you now, are formed at an early stage in life to deal with threatening and painful situations. It is like a raincoat, that you really needed as a child, and which you dare not take off now, in case there might be an unexpected rain shower.
The unfortunate thing about this is that these kind of survival patterns often call for the very thing you want to avoid. E.g., suppose as a child you felt you received too little attention, and so you react by asking for, or demanding more attention then usual, the chances are that people will respond to this attention seeking behaviour by ignoring you.
What bothers a lot of people is being self-critical. Being self-critical can in itself be useful, for example, when it prompts you to look at your own mistakes, with the intention of correcting them and/or doing better next time. It becomes harmful, however, if it takes the form of blaming yourself, feeling guilty, worthless and so forth.
Criticism is a part of upbringing. But when parents are overly or continuously critical, perhaps rejecting the child instead of only his/her behaviour, we become afraid of criticism because it undermines our feeling of well-being.
At the same time we copy the behaviour of our parents, doing to ourselves what they started to do, resulting in an internal voice that expresses strong disapproval.
Why, given that self critical behaviour, in itself doesn't make for a good or positive feeling, do we persist with it? Surely there must be some advantage of maintaining such behaviour. It could be that, firstly, we hope that by being self-critical, other people will have less/no need to 'better' us, and secondly, by adopting a very critical view about ourselves we hope or aspire to become perfect, so that we will be less likely to encounter future criticism
Furthermore, our self-blaming serves to keep other feelings at a safe distance. By evaluating, by 'being in our head', we are less likely to be able to acknowledge and appreciate how or what we really feel. If we could stop our self-evaluations for a moment, we would most likely feel the pain of being rejected and the anger. Anger, in fact towards our parents.
Most children are inclined to suppress their madness/anger toward their parents. Since expressing it could lead to even more criticism. Even in cases of the most serious abuse by parents, e.g., beating or incest, it is very difficult for the child to be angry and/or communicate this to one or both parents.
It’s just too bad that (too much) self blaming doesn't work. It evokes anxiety, resulting in under-performing/achieving, and consequently giving us even more reason for self-blame. Further, being critical towards ourselves, inclines us to be critical towards others; which most of the time comes back to us like a boomerang.
So there is every reason to get rid of those patterns that are doing us more harm then good. However, it seldom helps to force yourself into another attitude, to fight against yourself. New year’s resolutions seldom have long-lasting results. By fighting against, or denying those 'unacceptable' parts of yourself, for the most part only serves to exacerbate them.
In fact, you are saying to yourself: you are not o.k. And who wouldn't argue with such a statement.
How then can we deal with those patterns?
The best way to change yourself is by accepting yourself. Don't fight the 'unacceptable' parts, but allow them to be there, even appreciate them. Only then will you be able to get to know them better. When you understand why unwelcome behaviour or thoughts are there, in other words, what good they are doing you, they will probably disappear without much effort. You may learn other ways to get the same from the world around you without the harmful effect of your former conduct or thought patterns.
As was written above the arch of the Oracle of Delphi: know thyself, that is the only thing that is needed.
Meditation and focusing, as described by Eugene Gendlin, is very helpful in facilitating the process of getting to know oneself.
But there are some other specific exercises that might be of help:
Translating self-criticism into needs:
For instance: 'I don't have good looks', might be changed to: 'I want people to find me attractive and I want them to say so'.
'I do everything wrong' you may translate to: 'I want to feel good about myself', or, 'I want other people to appreciate me'.
The expression 'I am so shy' you could change into, 'I want people to listen to me'.
Discovering the advantage of self-criticism:
exercise described by
Another way to discover the advantage of being critical towards yourself is by giving your internal, critical voice a form. A fantasy figure or a speaking object. You can ask this figure what he thinks he is doing, and what good he thinks he is doing for you. Try not to come up with an answer yourself but take the time to really listen.
For about a week make a list every night containing 10 sentences each beginning with, ‘I am proud of myself because…’ Don’t try to resist or stop any negative thinking but rather experience how different it can feel when you concentrate on what you did well. In contrast to this, you might appreciate how your criticism is impacting on you.
Another way of experiencing a positive feeling is by letting the word ‘Yes’ stream through your body. Do this as often as you thing about it.
Write down your negative thoughts. You can do this the moment one comes to mind, or you can sit down and make a list. This is not fun to do, and you might be afraid that by doing this you’ll make matters worse. But the opposite is true. The more concrete you make your self-criticism, the less threatening it will be. You may want to heighten the effect by adding to every negative point, what it is that is most negative about it. You will discover that most of the time making it very clear will weaken your conviction. and give rise to other possible more positive thoughts on the same matter.
You can also try to figure out if there is any advantage in holding a specific negative belief or thought.
Finally, you can achieve more self-insight regarding negative thinking by setting yourself one or two days, for example, when you will (try and) say only positive things… about yourself, others, the weather, television programmes, etc.
© Bert Henning, 2004
The psychology of Self-esteem.
New York: Jossey-Bass, 2001.