cut yourself a break

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sometimes, it’s really easy for me to look at all the mistakes I’ve made in my life that held me back from being a better person today and go, “Oh, man. I really screwed up. I should’ve done [blank] instead of [blank].” Some mistakes are small, like staying up late when I know I have to get up early. Some of them are a little weightier, like drinking too much and making a fool out of myself. And then some of them are huge, like borrowing way more student loan money than I knew I could pay back. It’s true that living with the consequences of your actions is par for the course when you do anything, but how much punishment, exactly, are you supposed to meter out for yourself when you do something stupid? How do you know if you’re being too lenient or too harsh?

We live in a culture where perfection is not only a goal, but it’s a goal that everyone seems to have reached but us. It feels natural to self-deprecate on one or more character flaws, because if we don’t give ourselves a psychological twenty lashes, then who’s going to? And really, if that’s where it stops – then that’s fine. If you need to give yourself a stern talking-to in order to avoid making the same mistake twice, then by all means. Some people, however – myself included – have a habit of drawing out the punishment until it counteracts what they’re trying to accomplish.

For instance, I used to have a huge problem with emotional eating. My self-image wasn’t so great (understatement), and I was pretty overweight on top of it. So, I’d look at myself in the mirror, hate myself for a little while, then open the refrigerator and find the most comforting food I could (usually something sugary, with lots of chocolate) to stuff into the gap between my perception of myself and who I really was. Unsurprisingly, not only did that practice exacerbate the problem, but I was also getting more and more depressed with each repetition of the cycle.

(Image courtesy of Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

No human being on this planet is born perfect. To have a perfect person, the paragon of perfection would have to corporeally exist for a comparison, and it doesn’t. Each and every one of us has some kind of genetic mutation or psychological tendency due to our (or our ancestors’) adaptation to the environment around them, and we adapt in order to survive. There’s a reason you made whatever mistake you made: to help you become a better person. To help you evolve and adapt. If you’re an emotional eater, then the urge to eat when you’re depressed exists so you have a chance to exercise your willpower. When you exercise your willpower, you strengthen your sense of self. Just because you aren’t the person you want to be right now doesn’t mean that you’ll never get there. What’ll get you there is not beating yourself up about what you aren’t, though – it’s working, at your own pace, toward who you believe you should be.

Wading in a pool of self-hatred (or even hatred of others – sometimes, highlighting others’ character flaws puts less pressure on us to change ours) does absolutely nothing to change what you did in the past to put you at this point in your life. It doesn’t change you, it just makes you feel worse about yourself in the long run. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer is so important in Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meetings to Christians and non-Christians alike: it’s constant recognition of the fact that you’re only in control of what you do at this moment. An hour from now, we could get hit by a giant asteroid. We could be taken over by lawn gnomes. You could find a winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk. You could meet someone claiming to be the reincarnation of Genghis Khan, who makes collages out of old shoelaces in order to atone for his past atrocities. Each individual second that passes, each tiny interaction between us and the molecules jammed together in front of our faces, influences how we perceive the world. And we have absolutely no control over what happens to us. We do, however, have complete control over how we react to what happens.

If you grab a pan out of the oven without a mitt, you’re probably not going to spend the rest of your life wallowing in depression because you burned your hand. You may avoid baking for a while until the burn heals, but there’s only a real problem if you never bake again. Most people, I think, would just remember the oven mitt next time. Personality flaws are no different. If you lose a friend because you lost your temper and punched them in the face, then you may not have friends for a while. But you’ll have an opportunity, later in life, to not punch someone in the face. And the more you avoid punching someone in the face, the easier it will be to not punch someone in the face.

So, like the title says, cut yourself a break. If we’re alive for any reason at all, it’s to figure out what we’re supposed to do with this “life” thing in the first place. Usually, that’s as simple as making sure it goes on.

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