In high school, I fell down the stairs in front of everyone. I mean, everyone. And to this day, I think about it all the time. If that sounds pathetic, well, there are plenty of other horrifying things that have happened to me in the past 15 years since graduation that I also choose to re-live, over and over and over again. My question is: how do I let this, and all of those other embarrassments, go?
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I recently got a message from someone I hadn’t seen in at least 15 years. This person was apologizing profusely for having put their foot in their mouth. They’d been unable to sleep thinking about how they’d offended me. They wanted to make it right. They understood if I could not forgive them for what they’d done, but they wanted me to know how absolutely sorry they were.
I had no idea what they were talking about. None.
This person had lost hours of time, of sleep, of anything productive and enjoyable, worrying that they’d offended me and that I’d never forgive them. Flipping up through our message exchange, I saw that they had sent a few other messages to the same effect, right after I’d had a baby. If I had seen them before, I didn’t remember. This silence on my part was taken as proof that I despised this person, that whatever they did was egregious enough to warrant all of their distress.
In reality, I was just very tired.
You’re doing the same thing this person did: replaying your fall down the stairs, or whatever else the clumsiest, most socially-awkward version of yourself has done, and imagining a whole host of responses that all verify your opinion of yourself.
If you’re interested in some secondhand therapy—and who isn’t, because going to therapy yourself is so expensive—I’ll tell you that my therapist calls what you’re doing “magnification,”or inflating your shortcomings way beyond their actual size. Actually, many therapists call it magnification. They have an 8.5×11″ sheet of paper titled Cognitive Distortions and if you ask nicely, you can take it home with you so that you can check yourself every day and say, “hmmmm, am I just exaggerating the importance of every goof I’ve ever made, and supporting that point of view with imagined responses to a situation from the past?” The answer is yeah, I think you are.
I get why you replay this moment. I would do the same thing, and if you don’t believe me? Here is some proof that I am willing to brush off every single nice thing a person has ever said to me and focus instead on the one mean thing I’ve heard about myself, particularly if that negative comment comes from someone of little or no personal importance to me.
Have I replied to any of the more numerous good reviews of my book? Heavens, no. And neither have you. Every time you relive that fall down the stairs, or any of the other goofs you’ve made in your life, you’re scanning your own personal Amazon.com for imaginary negative reviews, ones that verify your worst fears about yourself. You’re being a real Nora.
It is very easy to practice self-criticism. It’s so easy that it doesn’t even feel like criticism, it just feels totally and completely normal. When your default view of yourself is that you’re a dumb dummy, it’s much harder to just be nice to yourself. You have to dedicate time to it, and it feels…embarrassing?
It is very easy to practice self-criticism. It’s so easy that it doesn’t even feel like criticism, it just feels totally and completely normal.
Let’s be reasonable here: you aren’t going to just suddenly stop replaying your worst moments over and over, and you’re certainly never going to forget falling down those stairs. But you can work on training yourself to not dwell as much on those moments when you do remember them.
You can start by taking a minute every day to replay a good moment. A time you were at your best, or at least your pretty-goodish. The next time you get a kind email from a colleague, or a compliment on Twitter? Screenshot that, and save it somewhere you can reference it.
I personally keep mine in a folder called SELF ESTEEM. It used to be called EMERGENCY FEEL GOODS.
A better title for it would be FIVE STAR REVIEWS.
If you have a question you would like Nora to address, email firstname.lastname@example.org.