ONLINE THERAPY AVAILABLE | (201) 661-3375 | 160 SUMMIT AVE., SUITE 205, MONTVALE, NJ 07645
No matter what you did—or think you did—peace is possible.
Imagine a perfectly normal afternoon. You’re going about your business, running errands, or hanging out with friends, when bam—you remember it. That pivotal screwup, that seemingly indefensible act from your past. You know, that incident that occurred five or 10 or 15 years ago—but you can’t seem to let go. So you spend the next hour lambasting yourself over your profound shortcomings. Or try this one on for size: You’re at home relaxing when you remember that important work meeting you were completely unprepared for last week. Sure, it’s been a hectic month, but is that really any excuse? This is so typical—always dropping the ball. You’re overcome with a torrent of shame, which rapidly coheres into an excoriating tirade you’d never dream of flinging at anyone but yourself: You idiot. You can’t do anything right.
One more scenario for ya: While scrolling social media, you come across a post from an old flame, the one you hurt badly. In the photo, they look happy, at ease. You find yourself awash in self-recrimination, unable to think of anything but the awful way you betrayed them or the horrible things you said. How could I have been so cruel? How can anyone stand to be around me?
If any of these scenarios feel uncomfortably familiar, it’s likely that you’re struggling with self-directed anger. It’s a psychological phenomenon that can manifest in a variety of ways, but it nearly always involves one thing: being seemingly incapable of cutting yourself a break. Even when your perceived missteps are minor. Even when the problem at hand wasn’t your fault. Even when you’ve atoned or taken responsibility for your major mistakes. And even when listening to that inner rage only makes you feel worse.
Self-directed anger is often useless and illogical—and it keeps you stuck.
Holding on to self-directed anger accomplishes nothing—research suggests it can, in fact, be deeply detrimental to a person’s well-being—but that fact does little to stop it from arising, or prevent people from indulging it. “It’s not a productive feeling,” Carol Chu-Peralta, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the founder of the Center for Resiliency in Montvale, New Jersey, tells SELF. “We often see that with self-blame or negative self-talk, people fall into a loop that never helps them move forward but continues to keep them stuck.”
Self-directed anger often defies logic in a variety of other ways, as well, according to the experts we spoke to. Case in point: Some people beat themselves up over something that happened ages ago or wasn’t a big deal to other parties involved, or their rage is based not on how they feel about themselves but on someone else’s opinion—a critical parent, say, or an abusive ex—that they’ve taken up as their own; or maybe they’re angry about something they can’t even control, such as having a physical characteristic they dislike. Another counterintuitive effect of self-directed anger: The more you lean into it, the worse the perceived error or shortcoming can seem. “People often ruminate about these mistakes, which tends to make them seem bigger than they are—and the consequences worse than they are,” Sharon Martin, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in San Jose and the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism, tells SELF. “So, a small error at work becomes: Everyone hates me. I’m going to get fired.” That kind of catastrophizing can push you to double down on self-directed anger, she says, trapping you in a perpetual feedback loop. Soon, it becomes impossible to tell what’s real, and what’s simply a product of your ragey distortion.
Even in instances in which you really did mess up, holding a self-grudge is useless. Sure, anger may initially help you realize what you did wrong so you can use that lesson to behave differently in the future, but mentally punishing yourself repeatedly for the same incident only makes you feel terrible. Self-directed anger is “often about having impossibly high standards for yourself, ” Martin says. In other words, you may convince yourself that you aren’t ever allowed to make a mistake—something done by every human since the dawn of time—such that when you do err, your immediate posture is one of self-castigation.
According to Dr. Chu-Peralta, if your anger stubbornly sticks around for months or even years, seems to be disproportionate to the size of the perceived mistake, or if it quickly shifts from something like I can’t believe I messed up this situation to the neighborhood of I am a worthless wretch, you’ve veered into unhealthy territory.
How to stop being mad at yourself so you can move forward
If self-directed anger is plaguing your life, take heart. There are ways to curb the tendency toward self-blame, find new ways to cope with the painful emotions that lie beneath your rage, and learn that human error is just that: entirely human. Here’s some therapist-approved advice to help you get unstuck.
Explore the thoughts and feelings attached to your self-directed anger.
Dr. Chu-Peralta suggests becoming curious about what causes the anger to occur: When do you feel it bubbling up? Is it when you’re scrolling on social media and see other people’s lives that you envy? Is it when you hang out with old friends who remind you of your younger, more optimistic self—the self you fear you’ve let down over time? What happens to you physically just before the descent into anger begins? Does your body clench? Does your stomach hurt? Do you feel sweaty or lightheaded? Carving out some time for this self-exploration once the anger has died down (ideally when you’re in a calm environment) can offer clues about what’s really prompting your rage, Dr. Chu-Peralta says.
She offers this example: Say you frequently experience self-directed anger at work. You’re convinced you’re inadequate, never quite up to the task. You often get headaches at the office. Every time you give a presentation, you excoriate yourself for the smallest mistakes. Is it really that you’re such a screwup—or is it that your boss is unreasonably critical of herself and/or you and your coworkers, and you’ve internalized her thinking? Recognizing similar experiences in your past can be illuminating, Dr. Chu-Peralta adds. For example, if the last time you experienced chronic headaches and self-recrimination was when you were a kid with a hypercritical parent, it may be that feeling angry at yourself at work is a response to an equally fault-finding boss. Identifying these connections can help you begin to see the anger for what it is: a maladaptive coping mechanism that it’s time to let go of. If you try to dismiss the rage or white-knuckle your way through it, on the other hand, “it will often come back twice as strong,” Dr. Chu-Peralta says.
If you can’t stop dwelling, try temporarily distracting yourself.
While ignoring your feelings can be disastrous in the long-term, in the short-term, shifting your focus may help you get some perspective—and give yourself a break. Martin suggests harnessing the power of distraction, since merely interrupting a self-critical thought can often shut it down. “If you’re ruminating, try going for a walk, doing a crossword puzzle, or listening to your favorite playlist or podcast,” she suggests. It sounds simple, but it’s often enough to make a real difference, according to Martin, since rumination—the act of replaying negative thoughts on a loop—typically yields diminishing returns. The more you mull, the less helpful your thoughts become.
Once you’ve halted the negative thought and have enough distance to look at your anger objectively, Martin advises that you then ask yourself a simple question: “Is it possible that I’m exaggerating my misdeeds or inadequacies?” Often, the answer will be yes, it is indeed possible. Another helpful question: “Even if I did really screw up, does beating myself up right now teach me anything new about the experience?” Nearly always, the answer will be a resounding no. This exercise is another way to put your self-directed anger in perspective.
Resist the urge to keep score.
“Try not to search for whatever the ‘ultimate truth’ of the situation is,” Dr. Chu-Peralta says. “Don’t try to determine who was right and who was wrong, including yourself.” You may think that identifying the rightful source of blame will finally adjudicate the issue, “solving” it somehow and allowing you to move on. You may also think that somehow if you dig deep enough into that long-ago occurrence, you’ll find the objective evidence that you are, in fact, a terrible person. But all this incessant judgment does is keep you pinned to that long-gone situation you can no longer change.
Say you’re stuck on a friend breakup from several years ago. You said some things you regret. She said some things you hope she regrets. Either way, you have convinced yourself the friendship’s downfall lies on your shoulders. You ask yourself: Who was really at fault? Who was the villain? Who was the wronged party?
But here’s what’s actually important, according to Dr. Chu-Peralta: Even if you could answer these questions definitively, which you can’t, the answers would likely have little impact on how you feel. Who cares if she said three unkind things and you said four? Either way, the net result is the same. What matters, then, is how you move forward—not how you interpret (and reinterpret, and keep reinterpreting) the past.
Acknowledge your mistakes—to yourself or the person you hurt.
Martin puts it succinctly: “If you’ve actually harmed someone else, make amends if you can.” Of course, there’s a difference between true misdeeds and those you’ve inflated or even imagined. But for all practical purposes, that difference may not matter. If you think apologizing might help you to stop engaging in self-directed anger, and if you think you really did cause harm, it’s worth the effort, Martin says. It may mean more to that person than you anticipate. The thing to remember, however, is that your apology may not be received as you hope—and that’s an outcome over which you simply have no control. They may not recall the so-called offense or think your apology is overblown or unneeded. They may still be angry about whatever it was that you did. But the point is this, according to Martin: Owning up to your mistakes, both to yourself and to the one you harmed, can be a powerful first step toward peace.
Find healing through social support—and self-care.
Strong personal connections go a long way toward self-compassion, says Dr. Chu-Peralta. You don’t need an army of well-wishers—telling a good friend what you’re struggling with so they can validate your vulnerable feelings is plenty. “Support can mean a lot of things,” Dr. Chu-Peralta says. “It could look like just one person you’re close to helping you to see the situation more clearly, or a mental health professional helping you to replace your maladaptive thoughts with new ways of thinking.”
Just as important as support is self-care. “Whenever somebody’s going through self-directed anger or negative self-talk, they need time to rest, whether that’s time to exercise or journal or whatever else helps them recharge,” Dr. Chu-Peralta says. She explains that when your defenses are lowered, it’s so much easier to jump right back into the forms of thinking that keep you stuck. “If you’re really tired or haven’t been taking good care of yourself lately, that could definitely make you vulnerable to defaulting to self-anger,” she adds.
But the most fitting advice may be to practice self-compassion and extend the same kindness and grace to yourself that you would to others, even though that can be really hard when you’re feeling overwhelmed with tough emotions, says Martin. I hear you, you might say to a friend who came to you in a spirit of remorse. I understand how it happened. We can move on. It will be okay. After all, even if you don't believe it yet, you deserve forgiveness—even if it’s you who needs to do the forgiving.