A toddler sits on the floor, playing with her shape-sorter: a large cube with different shaped holes. She has a whole array of soft rubber shapes to post inside it.
The triangle goes … in the triangle hole.
The square goes … in the square hole.
The circle goes…………. ??
She can’t see the circle hole. It’s on the underside of the cube. Undeterred, she squishes and squashes the circle shape with her little fist and, with some difficulty but a lot of determination, wedges it through the square hole. She then picks up another circle shape, but this time - rather than squish it like the last one into the square-shaped hole - she tosses the circle aside and picks up another square, posting it straight through.
This analogy describes the way many of us respond to criticism and to praise; to painful experiences and to good ones.
Imagine that the mind is like a shape-sorter. Imagine that criticism is a square shape. You probably have a perfect square-shaped hole ready and waiting to receive that square-shaped piece of criticism. In it goes. Whoosh! It fits perfectly. It’s so easy to take it in. But praise and compliments may be more difficult to post and store. Imagine that praise is a circle shape. Many people don’t have a circle (praise) shaped hole in their minds. So when a compliment comes along, what happens? It either gets squished and squashed into a criticism (“They’re only saying those nice things because they feel sorry for me. I’m such a loser”), or it gets “tossed away” (the nice things that were said are instantly discarded, forgotten, minimised, glossed over).
Over time, if we carefully store and cultivate all the criticism we receive, all the negative experiences we have - yet ignore or distort the praise, and the things that go well - then unhelpful core beliefs are likely to be strengthened and maintained. For example, it’s hard to change the belief “I’m worthless”, if we reject or twist all the evidence that would disconfirm this belief. It’s hard to change the belief “Nothing ever goes right for me” if the things that do go right don’t get noticed and stored.
Our early environments and experiences go a long way to shaping how we respond to circumstances when we are older. But even if you think you have no capacity to accept and store praise and other good experiences, it’s not too late to build a “praise-shaped hole”: an internal space where you can store the good things that happen. One simple way of doing this is by keeping a positive log: a brief daily record of things that go well; the compliments you receive; your achievements – no matter how small; the things you’re grateful for. Then, when you are feeling really low, and completely unable to think of anything good about yourself or your life, you can look back at what you’ve written.
Here's a true story about how I learned to put this into practice myself.
Many (many) years ago, I had a lovely colleague who I will refer to here as Claire. We shared an office. One day, sitting alone in the office, I was feeling really tired and miserable. I can’t now remember what the trigger was for this doom and gloom, but I do remember that my inner critic was being quite loud.
“You’ve really not done anything good today”, it observed, unhelpfully. “You’ve achieved nothing. In fact you’re rubbish”.
At that moment, my eyes settled on a large card on a nearby bookcase. It was one of several “Thank you” cards which Claire had dotted around the room. There was a bright gold foil star on the front, emblazoned with the words “YOU’RE A STAR!!” Inside, was a message detailing the various ways Claire had helped the sender. The details were glowing. The praise was fulsome.
“You SEE!” bellowed my inner critic, triumphantly. “What did I tell you?! See how good Claire is at her job! You are indeed RUBBISH.”
For the next ten minutes or so, I sat under a cloud, while my inner critic gleefully reminded me of my various mistakes and failings.
But then something else happened.
My "healthy adult"/inner compassionate voice chirped up:
“Hang on a minute. I’ve got a question or two about all this. Could it be, perhaps, that YOU have also received a Thank you card in the last few years?"
“Just the one??”
“Great! How many do you think you’ve received?”
(Whispering): "A lot".
“Good. And where are they, might I ask?”
“Ummmm they all went in the bin”. This was in the days before recycling was the norm.
(Sighing). “In the BIN?? … OK, but they existed once. What can you deduce from this?”
“Ummmm that I might have helped some people”.
“YES. And does Claire getting this card demonstrate that you are rubbish? Does Claire’s success have any relevance to you? Is it a competition?”
“I suppose not…..OK then, no.”
“Wonderful! We're getting somewhere. Here's an idea. How about you start keeping your cards instead of throwing them away?”
“Oh alright then”.
So I did. Several decades later I still have them – every single one. I can look at them and remember with warmth and affection each person who wrote them. Although my inner critic is much quieter nowadays, if I ever needed a different perspective, the cards would be a helpful reminder.
So how about you?
Do you have an internal place in your mind, where you can “post”, retain, and treasure the good things that happen each day? Not just compliments...but maybe the warm feelings when something goes right; the feeling of driving down an empty road on a sunny day; the look on someone's face when the present you gave them was just what they wanted; the colours of a particularly beautiful sunrise; shared moments of laughter; a recipe working out; a task accomplished despite you feeling weary; overcoming a negative behaviour pattern even if just the once; hearing your favourite music on the radio; snuggling with your cat or dog; reaching the next level of a game; tidying a room; spending some time outside appreciating nature...
If not, if you tend to ignore or discard moments like these, maybe this is something you’d like to change.
You could start by keeping a journal, or making a simple, daily note on your phone.
“What went well today?”