Let’s try a little exercise, shall we?
I want you to take a few seconds now to think about the things you’d like to change about yourself. Think about what you need to improve, what you should try to do better, and what you know you need to work on.
Got some immediate ideas? Great!
Okay, now, take a few seconds to think about the things that are fabulous about you. Think about what you’re really good at, what you’re super proud of, and what you’re doing incredibly well.
Not as easy, is it? Did you struggle to come up with anything at all?
It’s okay. You’re not alone. Unfortunately, this is the distorted Fun House lens that most of us are seeing ourselves through every single day. We see all the bad and none of the good.
Whether it’s fitness, parenting, work, finances, home decor, our wardrobe or the state of our yard, we focus on all the places where we believe we’re falling short, and none of the areas where we’re crushing it.
The more we focus on what we believe we’re lacking, the more we see it everywhere we look, until there’s no room left to appreciate all the wins, progress and growth we’re creating every single day.
Unfortunately, this phenomena is particularly acute among women. I was recently taking a course in habit change in which the importance of celebrating our wins was stressed. Our instructor told us that of the thousands of students she’s coached over the years she’s noticed that where men find it reasonably easy to celebrate themselves, women find it virtually impossible.
But why is this a problem? Couldn’t the argument be made that focusing on what we need to improve motivates us to continue to work towards our goals and prevents us from getting cocky and complacent and resting on our laurels?
No it does not. That’s not how your brain works.
But before we get to that, let’s take a moment to consider why we do this. It is a natural human tendency to constantly focus on the negative about ourselves? I don’t think it is.
Why Do We Do It?
Certainly there’s always been a desire among human animals to acquire status in the community but, did men and women in medieval times beat themselves up for being lazy, disorganized and out of shape in the same way that we do today? I doubt it.
I think there are two primary reasons why we’ve become so conditioned to view ourselves as never good enough and I think they’re both reasonably modern developments.
The first is the rampant proliferation of marketing. In just the last 50 years or less we’ve started being bombarded hundreds of times a day with messages that have been carefully crafted to make you feel like you’re not enough.
We live now inside of a marketing machine that is designed to create within you a feeling that you’re falling short and failing. Because when you believe you’re lacking in a thousand different ways, then there are thousands of different products and services you can be sold to try to rectify these embarrassing deficiencies.
Hair too curly? Buy this straightener.
Hair too straight? Buy this curling iron.
Living room too plain? Buy these wall hangings, throw pillows, area rugs and succulents.
Living room too cluttered? Buy these storage containers, shelving units and shadow boxes.
As long as there’s something wrong with you, there will be something someone can sell you to try to fix it. If you’re wonderful just the way you are, then you don’t need to buy anything to make yourself better.
The second reason is the growing plague of comparison.
Some level of comparison is natural. We’re hard wired to try to “keep up with the Joneses” because, as pack animals, it’s important that we have some awareness about what others in the group are doing so that we can regulate ourselves to align and find our place in the herd. All good.
However, social media is like gasoline on the fire of comparison.
Where we used to compare ourselves to maybe our friends, neighbours and extended community, now we compare ourselves to millions of people around the world including celebrities, billionaires and “influencers.” Who are, by the way, only sharing a highly curated and manufactured image of themselves and their lives.
We used to try to keep up with the Joneses, now we’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians.
Now, let’s get back to the question of whether there’s some use to constantly focusing on where we’re falling short and never taking time to celebrate ourselves. Couldn’t you argue that this keeps us hungry? Makes us constantly strive to be better and to improve ourselves?
Sure, except that’s not what it does.
Why It’s A Problem
First, according to a number of experts, the primary tenet of behavior change is that we must feel successful. Why? The answer is dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that teaches your brain to learn and repeat any behavior. When you do something that feels good, your brain drops a little “dopamine flag” so that you remember it and do it again next time. If we don’t feel good when we do something then we won’t repeat it.
If you can’t celebrate yourself when you make good choices, you’ll forever struggle to repeat them.
Second, with enough repetition, perception morphs into reality.
It’s like Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
We protect, defend and rationalize our psychological self-abuse until it feels like truth.
We’ve brain-washed ourselves so that we now believe that this is who we are. “I’m not a runner.” “I have no self-control.” “I can’t cook.” “I’ll never lose the weight.”
Our self-criticism has gone from the way we perceive ourselves, to now what we believe to be inherently true about ourselves. This puts massive limitations on what’s possible for us. If you don’t believe you’re capable of it, you’re not.
So, with an international multi-trillion dollar marketing machine determined to convince you that you’re lacking, and with the world of social media giving you the opportunity to compare yourself and come up short at every moment of every day, what can we do?
How Can We Get Better At Celebrating Ourselves?
Lower the bar. We tend to focus only on the finish line and ignore the rest of the race. This means that we can only see how far we still have to go.
Instead, focus on taking just the first step towards your goal and celebrate when you take it. Going for a power walk becomes just putting on your walking shoes and celebrating. Meditating for 15 minutes becomes just closing your eyes and taking three long deep breaths and celebrating. Planning a week of healthy meals becomes planning just one healthy meal for one day of the week and, you guessed it, celebrating!
Collect those small wins and build momentum by experiencing how good it feels to acknowledge those steps and celebrate yourself. Get that dopamine flowing!
Practice celebrating yourself. Celebrating yourself is a skill. And just like with any skill, you get better at it with practice.
Think about the times when you have been proud of yourself. When you’ve crossed something off your list or done something you’d been putting off, how did you celebrate? Did you say something to yourself (“YESSSS!” “Look at me go!” “Aw yeah!”)? Did you do something with your body (fist pump, happy dance, small smile)? Take another action (put a checkmark on your list, texted a friend). Figure out how you already celebrate and start practicing doing it more often.
In his book, Tiny Habits, B.J. Fogg suggests trying a “Celebration Blitz.” For example, if you’re putting away a load of laundry, every time you fold a piece of clothing or put it in a drawer, celebrate! Or if you’re unloading the dishwasher, every time you put a dish in a cupboard or a utensil in a drawer, celebrate!
Yes it will feel silly at first, but you also may find yourself having a ton of fun and you’ll be strengthening your celebration skills at the same time!
Stick up for yourself! Don’t let them push you around anymore!
Become more consciously aware of the marketing machine (is there really something “wrong” with your skin or your workout clothes, or are they just making stuff up in order to move more product?).
And catch yourself when you start playing the comparison game on social media. Remind yourself that those pictures have been carefully selected and filtered to conjure up an image of perfection. It’s a lie – don’t take the bait!
Remember that everyone else is just trying to figure it all out and do their best every day too, and that here in the real world, you’re doing pretty darn amazing! Celebrate that!
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