Not a day goes by without the need to make decisions. Big and small. What am I going to eat? What do I want to wear? Do I take the kids to the park or play in the yard? Which high school? Which college? Which degree? Which job? Marriage? Decisions can begin to feel overwhelming. However, how we treat ourselves in the midst of making choices can reduce anxiety and decrease overwhelming feelings.
Self-Criticism is not a winning formula!
Some fall into the trap of trying to motivate themselves with judgmental, critical thoughts. “I should know what to do. Why does everyone else seem to have it all together? What is wrong with me? Why bother?” Think about a third grade teacher attempting to help a child learn by telling them, “You should know what to do. What’s wrong with you?” The teacher may be trying to motivate the child to work harder, but this kind of language de-motivates, while creating shame and disconnection. Self-criticism also turns on our body’s threat detection system: fight/freeze/flight. Part of the brain shuts down and goes into self-protective mode.
Worry: The hamster wheel of motivation.
Worries can stunt our ability to make decisions. When faced with a choice, we can get caught on the worry treadmill. “What ifs” make it scary to move forward. “What if there is a better school?” “What if I do not like my new boss?” “What if I mess up?” Worry has more to do with an unknown, uncontrollable future than being able to function in the present. We can become so focused on all the possible negative outcomes that we miss out on what is going on in the present moment: sites, smells, tastes, and even relationships. Like self-criticism, chronic worry turns on the brain’s threat detection system and the body goes into self-protective mode. We all worry from time to time, but it is good to remember that worrying does not help us get any closer to meeting our goals.
The Three Cs: Courage, Compassion & Connection
Current research (Dr. Kristin Neff, Dr. Mark Williams, Dr. Danny Penman, Dr. Dennis Tirch and others) shows that compassion fosters the ability to face challenges in spite of fears and uncertainty. Compassion is connected with the attachment and nurturing system of the brain. Self-compassion soothes the threat detection system and opens up more areas of the brain so we have access to options and possibilities that help us move forward gently. The three Cs originate with Dr. Brené Brown and have been expanded upon here (Brown, 2007):
Courage – We gain the courage to approach challenging decisions when we practice compassion with ourselves in the process.
Compassion – “How we develop the courage and the strength to engage with and deal with those things that are difficult for us to do.” (Tirch, 2012)
Connection – Seek support from others, seek out those who have made similar decisions, and trust yourself to make the best decision for you. (More on decision making processes in my next blog).
- Become aware. If you struggle to make decisions, notice what you are saying to yourself. If you are self-critical, know this is a habit that can be broken. Don’t beat yourself up. We all do it from time to time.
- For those who grew up or live in judgmental or critical settings, self-compassion can be challenging at first. To begin the process, think of someone you love or a beloved pet. If they were in a similar situation, how would you comfort and help them through this situation. Write down phrases and ideas on 3×5 cards and apply to self. This really works by turning on more areas in the brain!
- Break it down! Breaking big decisions into tiny pieces is gentler with the brain, and keeps the threat-detection system at bay. “By taking steps so tiny that they seem trivial or even laughable, you’ll sail calmly past obstacles that have defeated you before. Slowly—but painlessly!—you will cultivate an appetite for continued success and lay down a permanent new route to change.” (Maurer, 2004).
If you seek a place to heal from judgment and criticism from self or others, or a place where you learn compassion for yourself, please contact Fuller Life Family Therapy. We can work together to create more connection and acceptance in your daily life.