The phrase “your own worst enemy” is uttered so often it’s become a stale cliché without any real impact. But the reality that we are often harder on ourselves than anyone else is has not gone away. In fact, parents and spouses tend to be even harder on themselves than others might be.
“Being unreasonably hard on ourselves is very human,” says educational and developmental psychologist Dr. Oksana Hagerty. “In the end, self-management is one of the most difficult types of management, with all the challenges of working with others exacerbated by the lack of objective feedback. As a result, just like in business settings, we often resort to ‘managing by exception’: reflecting on our performance only when there are problems similarly to proverbial bad bosses, who ‘notice’ employees only when they get in trouble.”
So what can we do to stop the cycle of self-punishment for our shortcomings, whether real or imagined? It’s about taking measures to break the cycle before it (re)starts. Here’s what to know.
Take Care of Your Needs First
This kind of thinking might run counter to the instincts of a lot of husbands and fathers, who tend to put the needs of everyone else above their own. However, Scott Allen, a licensed mental health counselor and psychotherapist in South Florida, says it’s important, using the oft-repeated analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask ahead of others in an air emergency. “If you don’t put on that oxygen mask first, you won’t be available to get breathable air to your child when the plane is going down. The same can be said about physical and mental health. Schedule time for physical activity and fun. Give yourself some well-deserved ‘dad time’ to recharge.”
Measure Your Performance
In good times and bad, it’s important to take a moment to look at what you’ve done right and done wrong to remind yourself that, more often than not, the scales tip in a positive direction. That will make it much more difficult to beat yourself up the next time you drop the ball. “Tracking and reflecting on all performance will naturally ‘catch’ some successes, which, among other things, will establish new ‘degrees of freedom’ for you,” says Hagerty. “Saying, ‘Yes, I know I did not do well here, but I have done X, Y, and Z,’ is your way to break the stress-induced ‘tunnel vision’ that blocks everything but the problem and to line up the resources necessary to move on with confidence and joy.”
Accept That You’re Imperfect
Due to outdated notions and a good deal of stubbornness, many men tend to want to be everything to everyone, especially to their families. They want to give them the best that they can, hopefully more than they had growing up. However, the journey towards perfection is fraught with stress and anxiety. Allen says you have to accept that you are not alone in striving to be all you can be. “Never give up a chance to admit your mistakes and misconceptions. Be brave enough to allow your children to experience your vulnerability with intimate conversations about your humanity and humility; you’ll thank yourself for it in the future.”
Change Your Perspective
Sometimes your thoughts, your inner chastisement, can become so loud and so pervasive that they begin to sound like facts. You tell yourself that you’re a failure because you were late to your daughter’s recital. You criticize yourself for being a bad husband because you forgot to take the garbage out one night. But, more often than not, these thoughts are not reflective of the actual situation. “Reflect about how often the mistakes you’ve made in the past have resulted in the worst-case scenario occurring and whether the issue you are upset about now will matter in one year from now,” says Dr. Roxy Zarrabi, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist. “When your inner critic is being loud, your perspective becomes narrow and these questions can help ground you in the present moment and provide a different perspective.”
No matter how hard you try to be Superdad, you are going to fall short. Not living up to the expectations you set for yourself as a father can be a hard pill to swallow, leading to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes you’ve made; focus on what you’ve done right and forgive yourself for the times where you’ve fallen short. “Negative self-talk, blame, guilt, and shame are snags that most dads deal with on a regular basis,” says Allen. “Remember, you are worth the time to work on your personal wellness because your children are worth it.”