“Philosophy calls for simple living, but not for penance — it’s quite possible to be simple without being crude.”SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 5.5
In today’s quote from The Daily Stoic, Seneca makes it clear that punishing ourselves is not necessary. Self-criticism is fine, but “self-flagellation” or beating up on yourself, is not.
Why is self-criticism okay? Because it means you’re taking a discerning eye toward your own behavior, and examining it for areas that need improvement. You’re looking for areas where you can be better.
Self-punishment and self-loathing are different, however, and they should not be our aim. They’re not “constructive” as author Ryan Holiday points out, whereas self-criticism is. Self-criticism aims to lift you up and help you grow, help you do better, help you improve. Punishing yourself does none of these things, and should be avoided.
At the end of today’s entry, Holiday says that you should “hold yourself to a higher standard but not an impossible one. And forgive yourself if and when you slip up.” That’s great advice.
Oldest child syndrome
If you’re the oldest child among your siblings, then you’re probably a little bit like me in that you expect a lot from yourself. Perhaps you’ve read the research about this.
Oldest children (and this persists into adulthood) expect so much from themselves that it sometimes borders on self-cruelty. We have some sort of perfect ideal that we know we ought to live up to, that we should live up to, and shame on us for not doing better. We start to scold ourselves in our head, talk down to ourselves, even say nasty things to ourselves.
There’s a term for this: negative self-talk. It’s more dangerous than it seems. We don’t just risk bringing ourselves down or hurting our self-esteem; we risk doing real damage to our psyches and our potential by being negative in our heads toward ourselves. And oldest children do it best.
I’ve done a lot of this to myself over the years. I still find myself doing it sometimes. Even if it’s not always negative self-talk, I just expect near-perfection from myself, and I’m very disappointed when I fall short. I need to cut myself a break.
That’s why I write down positive affirmations to myself each morning, sort of as a counter-balance of sorts. I write down what I like about myself, what I did well the previous day. I give myself compliments, I say nice things about myself to myself. It helps. It reminds me that I’m human, and that even though I self-criticise, I don’t self-punish.