Cut yourself some slack – Reward yourself instead of beating yourself up

For the last few years I’ve experimented a lot on myself. I’ve experimented with diets, exercise routines, work schedules, creative scheduling, you name it. When it comes to improving my life in small ways, I’ve become very disciplined with implementing new habits.

I’m also proud to say that I have had fantastic results and these habits are sticking. In the last two years I’ve read over 40 books, which is more than I have ever read in my entire life. I’ve implemented a regular and consistent meditation practice. My diet is healthier than ever before…I’m seeing my abs for the first time in my life.

I’ve also went on the extreme end of the spectrum for a while. I was vegetarian for two years. I went 90 days this year without smoking or drinking. I’ve refrained from masturbation for 30 days….Needless to say, I like to experiment.

Over time though, I’ve come to realize that discipline and willpower are a double edged sword. In our attempts to constantly improve and optimize our lives, we become hard on ourselves.

Throughout my many experiments I’ve noticed my tendency to beat myself up. I hold myself to TOO HIGH of standards. I feel guilty when I’ve done something bad OR torture myself with indecision in the moments when I want to cheat but my “discipline” is telling me no.

I’ve noticed that although I gain discipline in these activities, I stress myself out and become tense and anxious. I’m always searching for the 10% that I can improve, instead of being happy with the 90% that’s already right.

Aware that I was doing this to myself, I decided to make a conscious effort to not be so hard on myself. To be less serious. To cut myself some slack while still maintaining a healthy and disciplined life.

I like to believe that I hit a turning point in this process through my practice in meditation.

At first when I began meditating I was very hard on myself. If I couldn’t concentrate or focus, I would get frustrated. If I fell asleep, I felt guilty. If I missed a day of practice I would think about it all day in my head, circling over and over about why I didn’t do it.

This mindset was preventing me from moving forwards in my practice. More importantly, it was preventing me from having FUN! Simply enjoying myself in the learning process and experiencing the joys that meditation can offer.

So one day I decided to switch things up. Rather than beating myself up every time my mind inevitably wandered off, I would instead reward myself for when I caught myself lost in thought. If I found that I was lost in the virtual world of thinking, I would smile, laugh to myself, and then return back to my breath.

There’s no way of avoiding my mind wandering off. No matter how much I practice there will be off days. I can’t control being focused all the time every day.

What I can control however, is my relationship to how I react WHEN my mind wanders off. I can practice ACCEPTANCE rather than RESISTANCE. When I accept that I have wandered off and smile to myself, it’s healthier than when I resist and become frustrated with the lack of clarity in my mind.

This mindset also applies to literally every other area of life, from diet to exercise to drugs and alcohol.

Our relationship with cheating defines our relationship with ourselves.

Rather than feeling guilty after crushing an enormous cheeseburger, I congratulate myself when I eat a healthy meal. Rather than feeling upset that I missed a day of workouts, I celebrate my return to the gym.

The fact is, you are inevitably going to waver off of the path. It’s impossible to be perfect all of the time. What matters is not that you avoid wandering off the path entirely, but you instead cultivate the ability to continuously RETURN to the path. It’s not about being perfect all the time, it’s about accepting that you weren’t, rewarding yourself for noticing, and then getting back on the proper course of action.

It’s basic psychology. Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. The dog that is beaten every time it pees on the floor will learn more slowly than the dog who is rewarded every time it successfully goes outside to pee. Reward successful behaviors instead of punishing undesired ones.

Take this same approach with yourself. Reward yourself for your accomplishments, no matter how small, instead of reprimanding yourself when you waver off the path a bit.

Could this be a slippery slope? Absolutely. Often times the one day that we cheat has a ripple effect that leads us to spinning out of control. This is where true discipline comes in. It’s easier to opt off of the line entirely than it is to learn how to ride the waves.

It’s easier to stop drinking alcohol entirely than it is to do it responsibly. It’s easier to never eat cakes and cookies than it is to only have one small piece and stop. It’s easier to stop smoking pot entirely than it is to only smoke once in awhile.

The people who have to stop drinking and smoking entirely are WEAKER than those who have the true STRENGTH of discipline.

This is true balance. This is true discipline. The mind that can have a healthy relationship with the waves of being disciplined vs undisciplined is the healthy mind of a balanced individual.

Moreover, it’s a healthier way to live. A way of learning to be compassionate to yourself. Learning to forgive yourself and accept your shortcomings.

I’ve come to realize the importance in LOVING YOURSELF. Taking care of yourself. Being gentle with yourself.

If you try to imagine yourself as a parent taking care of your mind and body, what type of parent are you? Are you the strict domineering father, whipping yourself with a belt every time you do the slightest thing wrong? Or are you the loving compassionate mother, always understanding, kind, and gentle?

We all require a balance. Sometimes we need to be hard on ourselves. Sometimes we need to be gentle. My opinion however is that we need to be more gentle than we do strict.

When we aim for perfection we become rigid, tense, and tight. We don’t give ourselves any slack. There’s no room for error.

In doing this we either become entirely too serious, or we torture ourselves with guilt for having a small slip up. We can’t enjoy the small moments when we decide to drop the habit for a second.

If you truly love yourself, learn how to cheat and be comfortable with it. Learn how to cheat but still accomplish your goals.

Here’s some simple suggestions that I believe help to cultivate this:

  • Successfully went to the gym everyday for a week? Intentionally take a day off and do nothing!
  • Successfully ate healthy for a week? Reward yourself with a cheat day where you can eat anything you want for a day!
  • Stopped drinking for a week? Reward yourself with a glass of wine.

It’s not avoiding the 10% of temptation, it’s about getting the other 90% right. If you are disciplined 90% of the time, it’s ok to cheat for the other 10%. This is more realistic and attainable than trying to be 100% perfect all of the time.

Learn to reward yourself for returning to the path, instead of beating yourself up for wavering off. Don’t fall into the trap of aiming for perfection, wise up and cultivate a truly balanced way of life, one that allows you to nail what’s important, but have fun cheating occasionally while doing it 😃  

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Let me know in the comments below!

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Also published on Medium.

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