It’s Easier to Take a Beating If I Beat Myself Up First

It’s Easier to Take a Beating If I Beat Myself Up First

It’s easier to take a beating if I beat myself up first. At least that seems to be a part of my subconscious narrative.

Today, in the midst of preparing to launch our first small group, I got caught in traffic and forgot the baby bottles, making me 10 minutes late to the small group – the small group I’m helping to lead. And what’s worse: I had the food! It was an epic fail.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad. But you would have thought the world came to an end if you were with me in the car (like Anna was). I was practicing what I’ve done my whole life: beat myself up so that when others throw their jabs, I don’t feel them.

When I was a boy, my dad would be gone for large stretches of time, working out of town. When he’d come home, the first thing he’d say was what I didn’t do right. It didn’t matter that I mowed the lawn if the trash cans didn’t get taken out (or vice versa). There was always something I missed, and so there was always something I got criticized for. My dad wasn’t mean; he just thought he was helping me become more attentive to things. Unfortunately, this, along with insecurities, teasing family members, cruel friends, and over-the-top sports coaches produced in me a real anxiety over imperfection.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that, while I couldn’t altogether prevent the criticisms, I could prevent the disappointment I felt when I failed by being the first one to make an attack on myself. My own self-ridicule preempted that of others, and somehow that seemed to take away the sting.

Not only that, I learned that if I beat myself up bad enough, I can sometimes earn enough sympathy to outweigh the criticism (especially when it came to my mom!). And while that’s a bit silly, it’s also a bit manipulative and sad. Somewhere, deep down, I think a part of me still hopes people will give me a break if they know how hard I tried (despite the numerous lessons otherwise which I learned from my coaches).

When it comes to work, I do this more than I care to admit. I’m realizing that most of the time I criticize my own work (something I wrote about recently), I do it to brush off whatever criticisms from others might come. So when we recently redesigned our email strategy for the church, I would reply to any compliments with, “Well, it’s getting there!” That was my underhanded way of saying, “Before you criticize me, or think of a criticism, know that I already gave it to myself.” This is problematic for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps most significantly in that it robs me from ever being able to fully enjoy the fruit of my labor. What I do can never be good enough.

This doesn’t just happen at work; it also comes out in my writing. In fact, this whole 30-day writing without editing challenge is rooted in a reflection on this. The primary reason I spend so much time editing my writing and avoid shipping is that I don’t want anyone to criticize me more than myself. If I throw a right-cross, I probably won’t feel a little flick on the arm.

Is it just me? Does anybody else do this? How do we change this practice?

I’m actually taking a class on the “Practices of Community,” and I couldn’t imagine a better time for it. We’re basically reflecting on individual and community practices which are formed by disciplines and which, in turn, form our character. Things like truth-telling, hospitality, promise-keeping, forgiveness, gratitude, and so forth – these are practices which are made up, in part, of disciplines. And I think these are, in part, the solution to my existing practice of self-ridicule.

As I reflect on it, I’m believing at least two lies (i.e. two false stories): (1) that everyone is just waiting to criticize me, and (2) that their criticism is a threat. Someone made a comment on my post the other day that, while criticism isn’t justified, perhaps we shouldn’t be so threatened by it. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. While I think we need to call out criticism, I do think we also need to listen to one another without being threatened (or at least, that’s what I’m learning). This much seems true in our nation. If somebody says, “Black lives matter,” you can’t go 5 seconds without hearing the refrain, “All lives matter.” As soon as someone makes a statement which we believe is a criticism of us (or our system), we get defensive and stop listening.

I realize I do this a lot, and it betrays some deep insecurities. The truth, to oppose the false stories, is that God, in Christ, approves of me – that God is the One who is perfecting me, and if anyone has a problem with how long God’s taking, they can take their complaint before God. There is no longer a need to be threatened by the opinions of others; God looks upon me (us) with pleasure. As I said in yesterdays post, it’s okay to offend people sometimes. What matters is that I’m continually before an “audience of One,” looking to God to develop in me the character of Christ.

I’m talking to myself here, but I wonder if there isn’t a person or two who knows just what I’m talking about. If you can relate, I’d really appreciate hearing your story and how you have found to best develop alternative practices – how you move from self-ridicule to thanksgiving, for example.

1 Comment It’s Easier to Take a Beating If I Beat Myself Up First

  1. Freeda

    I think this sort of self-trashing as it were, is more prevalent than you seem to imagine. Many people have had parents or teachers or even mentors, who emphasized what they did wrong instead of what they did right. Some people might have grown stronger because of this approach, but I think many people learned the (untrue) lesson that basically they just weren’t good enough. Maybe some people became workaholics to cover their insecurity; maybe some just dropped out altogether and turned to fantasy to obtain the approval they needed.
    I agree with your insight that in order to protect myself from what I consider inevitable criticism, I am always quick to find fault with whatever I do. Praise makes me nervous, because I never feel that I’ve earned it. We can’t undo the past, but I am trying to take these negative assumptions captive to Jesus Christ. The great thing about the Gospel is that it has nothing to do with me. God chose to love Me for His own purposes, not because I met a certain standard. So why do I feel bad about not being good enough? It’s like my feelings haven’t caught up with my theology: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. We are the body of whom Christ is the head: “from whom the whole body joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:16)
    As you pointed out, one lie is that everyone is going to criticize me and I won’t survive it unless I do the criticizing first. Actually it’s more than one lie since not only are most people not interested in criticizing me (they have better things to do) but my self-criticism doesn’t protect me at all, it leaves me feeling bruised all the time. I also think self-criticism can be an internalization that gives me control; I am no longer the victim, I am the torturer. For myself, maybe it would be healthier to just admit that it made me angry to never be good enough for my mother, even as I was angry at myself that I could not please her.
    Whatever it seems pretty irrational, the kind of problem that can’t be thought out but broken out of, by the grace of God, by the day-to-day, moment-to-moment transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
    The second lie seems to be a version of perfectionism: that if I don’t do everything perfectly I have failed. But that’s just not true. I personally hate being late, but it doesn’t rank with people murdering each other. Love is not provoked, love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs: do I believe in God’s love and that the people of God are learning to love that way, not perfectly, but growing? Or am I too busy trying to protect myself with self-criticism, to receive that love?
    Thanks again Jon for bringing up issues I’ve thought about but have never discussed with other Christians.


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