As part of The Big Fish English Writing Project, Rachel Costa has written this article about being kind to yourself . . .
Don’t beat yourself up!
By Rachel Costa
Maybe you know this feeling: You are having an everyday conversation in English. You can feel the battle of your mind against the language. Your neurons are working hard trying to find the most suitable words, putting each verb into the right tense, the herculean task to avoid silly mistakes when using pronouns…
You feel you are not doing too badly but then, when you are least expecting it, you do something really stupid like saying ‘her’ instead of ‘his’ (Personally I changed the sex of my husband in conversations so many times when I first arrived in London that I am quite sure that some people I met in this period thought I was married to a woman).
When you notice the mistake, you freeze – you say sorry, correct it and try to get back to the conversation while thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind being married to a woman, that is not the problem, but when will I stop making this bloody mistake?”. At that moment you start to feel another strange feeling.
It’s not just anxiety any more – you feel as if your neurons are trying to kill each other, the big-neuron-boss (ok, I know the brain doesn’t work like that, but lets just use that image to illustrate the situation better) is shouting at the worker-neurons trying to figure out who was the responsible for this stupid mistake – AGAIN! And the downcast worker-neurons are quiet and sad. They don’t have any explanation to offer.
They just make the same mistake… AGAIN!
We are in the same boat.
If you know this feeling, we are probably in the same boat: ‘The Excessive Inner Critic Club’. And what is the problem with being in this boat? Well, you probably know as well as me that this habit is not helping us improve our English and maybe our neurons are sinking in unnecessary worries instead of navigating the language.
In our conversation sessions at The Barbican Centre (that are someimes better than therapy), more than once we have talked about how beating ourselves up can be prejudicial for our learning. And the reasons are not difficult to anticipate: We know that when we react in this way, we usually feel a mix of negative sensations such as fear, frustration, sadness – and you are completely aware that all those feelings will not help our brain to keep itself fresh and open to a new language.
Trying to tackle the criticism.
So, one day, after talking about this subject in one of our conversation meet-ups, I decided to look for a few scientific approaches to tackle the ‘excessive inner criticism’ and stop beating myself up each time I call my husband ‘her’, say ‘related with’, ‘depends of’ or of course get the verb tense muddled up.
I found a good text about it by an American psychologist (the full text here) in which he suggests a test: after a mistake, try two approaches:
First, talk to yourself about it like a supportive but no-nonsense friend, coach, teacher, or therapist. Notice what this feels like, and what the results are for you. Let’s call this the encouraging approach. Second, talk to yourself about it like an alarmed and intense critic – maybe like your dad, big sister, or a minister or teacher talked to you.
After our inner conversations, he invites us to evaluate what we are feeling. I did test it on myself and as you can imagine, I really felt better after what he calls the ‘encouraging approach’. If you are in the same boat, my friend, I would suggest you to try it too.
Now, my next goal is to transform ‘beating myself up’ into just another new verb on my phrasal verbs list, rather than an actual, real life behaviour.