Photo by Valeria Zoncoll

I’ve recently been spending time with my wonderful, 9-month old nephew. He’s beautiful, he laughs and smiles a lot, likes going on walks, eats almost anything, plays with other children and sleeps pretty solidly.

People often say, ‘He’s such a good boy!’

But that actually makes me feel a little uneasy. I think it’s really important to give little (and big) people praise, but the label of ‘good’ is problematic to me.

My friend’s son used to cry a lot, for no discernable reason, and he would only sleep when held upright in her arms,, which was a really tricky position for her to sleep in. It was a very tough few years for her.

Sounds like a difficult or ‘bad’ baby, right?

At age three, a chiropractor noticed that the baby had a misalignment in his spine, which he was able to sort out in one session. Overnight, the pain was gone and Jamie was able to finally sleep like a baby. What a relief!

The fact that he cried and didn’t sleep well wasn’t anything to do with being good or bad, he was just in pain.

My mum often sees clients who are told at school that they are lazy or stupid by teachers, and even their parents, because their marks are far below their intelligence level. They are punished for this. They often become aggressive, defiant and disinterested in school, which only leads to more punishment.

By the time she meets them, they have had many miserable years of being told how ‘bad’ they are.

She frequently recognises that they are in fact dyslexic, and with a bit of support to adapt to their different learning style, they start to thrive academically and their confidence starts to grow.

Terrorists, criminals and people with the opposite political point of view to us are often considered intellectually and morally deficient, bad people. We don’t stop to question why they are behaving as they are.

We’ve all grown up with this binary judgment as a way of assessing who we are and how we measure up to some perceived standard of being human, and it seems to be extremely common to judge oneself as a ‘bad’ or ‘failing’ person. Except, instead of the word ‘bad’, we use ‘not enough’ or ‘should’.

I haven’t got enough done today. I don’t sleep enough. I’m not organised enough. I’m not focused enough. I don’t have enough of a thigh gap. I haven’t adopted enough Malawian orphans.

I should save more, lose weight, be taller, spend more time with my friends, give more to charity. I shouldn’t get so anxious. I should be over my divorce by now. I should be married with children who are developmentally advanced, physically perfect and emotionally balanced, living in a nice three-story Victorian house in a good catchment area.

What a lot to live up to!

What’s actually true is that you do some things well and you struggle at others. There’s nothing you should or shouldn’t be feeling. Mistakes are a part of life and there’s no right way to be or look. When you get aggressive, it’s not because you are bad, it’s because you are suffering in some way. We are all imperfect humans doing our best.

All this self-criticism negatively affects our confidence, our work, our relationships… our very ability to enjoy life.

The way the author Byron Katy puts it is, ‘Suffering is caused by believing your thoughts.’

The most effective way that I have found of dealing with it is simply to notice your thoughts and question them.

For example, maybe you’re thinking of going for a promotion or a new job, and you start thinking to yourself, ‘I’m not as good as that other person, I don’t have enough experience, or I should be better qualified’. Rather than just believing your thoughts, notice that they are just thoughts and ask yourself, ‘How do I know that I’m not good enough to get this job?’

Undoing all the ‘good boy’ brainwashing is a lifetime of work, but on the plus-side, there are lots of opportunities to practise!

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My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.