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Should we give ourselves a break from self-criticism?

by biasharadigest

Should we give ourselves a break from self-criticism?

Winny Ndanu
Madaraka Express train crew Winny Ndanu prepares to usher passengers into the train in Mombasa last July. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL 

In antiquity and among prehistoric cultures, ceremonial whippings were performed in rites of initiation, purification and fertility, which often included other forms of physical suffering.

Floggings and mutilations were sometimes self-inflicted. While the practice gradually subsided and was a target of the Inquisition, the Jesuits temporary revived it the 16th century. Today, flagellation is practised by some Shiite Muslims, who whip themselves during the holiday of Ashura to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn at the Battle of Karbala (680 CE).

Just this week, a friend of mine posted some good news on Facebook from a happy foreign investor whose refining equipment arrived at Mombasa port on December 30, 2019, and was cleared by customs at the standard gauge railway port of Nairobi in six days. This was world-class efficiency, especially considering that it was over the holiday period. Unsurprisingly, this post on Facebook only attracted 16 likes and four comments. I can assure you that had the post been about corruption, murder, theft or system failure, it would have attracted comments from “experts” and hordes of keyboard warriors.

We have become socialised to have a low self-worth of ourselves and to be cynical of anything that is even mildly positive about our country. While there is no denying that the nation is in dire straits, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps — the solution lies in us.

When human beings experience failure and setbacks, it is natural for them to respond in two ways. Either we become defensive and blame others or we berate ourselves. Unfortunately, neither response is especially helpful. Shirking responsibility by getting defensive may alleviate the sting of failure but, it comes at the expense of learning.


Self-flagellation, on the other hand, may feel warranted at the moment but it can lead to an inaccurately gloomy assessment of one’s potential, which undermines personal development.

The ability to think, feel, and choose and build thoughts into mindsets is one of the most powerful things in the universe because this power is the source of all human creativity and imagination.

Research, as well as common sense, shows that believing you will succeed is a precursor to success. Conversely, thinking that you are limited is itself a limiting factor — a nocebo effect. We can choose to adopt a mindset that improves our creativity and functionality in general, or we can choose to adopt an attitude that constrains us.

We often hear the cliché “thinking outside the box” but, the truth is the box is a figment of our imagination — we are as creative as we want to be.

Self-compassion is treating ourselves as we would a friend. More likely we would treat a friend with kindness, understanding and encouragement. It is a kind of introspection. Although people who engage in self-compassion indeed tend to have higher self-esteem, the two concepts are distinct.

Self-esteem tends to involve evaluating oneself against others while self-compassion does not involve judging the self or others thereby creating a sense of self-worth because it leads people to genuinely care about their well-being and recovery after a setback.

People with high levels of self-compassion demonstrate three behaviours:

First, they are kind rather than judgmental about their failures and mistakes. Second, they recognise that failures are a shared human experience and third, they take a balanced approach to negative emotions when they stumble or fall short — they allow themselves to feel bad but they don’t let negative emotions take over.

One of the key requirements for self-improvement is having a realistic assessment of where we stand — of our strengths and limitations. Convincing ourselves that we are better than we are leads to complacency, and thinking we are worse leads to defeatism. When people treat themselves with compassion, they are better able to arrive at realistic self-appraisals, which is the foundation for improvement. They are also motivated to work on their weaknesses rather than think “What’s the point?” and to summon the grit required to enhance skills and change bad habits.

Rather than bad-mouthing our country and wallowing in the many misdeeds of our leaders and fellow countrymen, let us take a long, hard objective look at what ails us.

We still have the basic building blocks to create a great nation.

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