What To Do When You’re Mad at Yourself

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

Ever have one of those days when everything seems to go wrong? Recently I returned from vacation to find our refrigerator had died a horrible death.  Greeted by the lovely aroma of decomposing food, our plans to unpack and relax promptly self-destructed.  After filling three large bags with waste from the refrigerator and burying them in the trash bin, we researched refrigerators online and collapsed into bed after 1 am.  The next day I added refrigerator shopping to the usual post-vacation task avalanche.   I helped my daughter with back to school jitters, raced from the school to three stores to look at refrigerators, raced to pick up daughter, and get her to a piano lesson.  Running late I stopped at the house to quickly use the bathroom and grab the checkbook.  Wheeling around as I pulled up my pants and hit the flush, I watched my only remaining car key disappear down the toilet drain.  “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” 

Of course the key has a computer chip requiring a full day at the dealership for reprogramming.  (Our spare key was lost a few years earlier when our sons drove the car).  This mistake of mine cost several hundred dollars.  (I know you engineers out there could fix this quite easily for little cost.  Please take pity on my ignorance.)

I thought of the scene in the movie “Liar, Liar” when Jim Carrey kicks his own butt in a restroom.  I stomped about for a few moments sounding like an old Ren and Stimpy cartoon, “YOU IDIOT!”  Yes I felt like a moron over this stupid, expensive mishap.  Sometimes we feel sick about really big mistakes.  One man I worked with faced the horror of killing someone in a drunk driving accident.  His rage at himself turned into a paralyzing depression.  Another woman felt a stomach churning self-disgust after cheating on her loving husband.  She wondered how she could go on living with herself after this life altering misadventure.

Self-anger can morph into self-loathing, a poisonous way of thinking that can fuel mental illness.  When self-anger festers into the infection of self-loathing, several negative outcomes follow:

  • Difficulty giving and receiving love from others.
  • Lack of motivation to achieve.
  • Inability to enjoy normal pleasures of life.
  • Self-destructive behaviors.

Famous psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin wrote an excellent book called Compassion and Self-Hate.  In it he talks about the conflict between our real self, with all our strengths, faults and insecurities, and our ideal self; successful, attractive, kind and perfect.  Self-hatred, the most damaging form of self-anger, occurs when we feel it’s impossible to act ideally, and we give up on the value of our real self.  Healthy self-esteem occurs when we see ourselves clearly enough to know our strengths and weaknesses and still find value in our real self.  Our ideals point the way to what we wish to achieve, but when we fall short we quickly learn from it and move on.

If you worry your self-anger lingers too long or has become self-hatred, treatment for depression and low self-esteem can really help.  Psychologists and other mental health providers will help you identify how your thinking may be exaggerated, or distorted.  Perhaps you magnify your faults, while ignoring your strengths.  The doctor can give you behavioral and thinking exercises to get you moving toward healthier self-esteem.  In the mean time you can try a simple method we developed.  It’s called the FIVE-S method, for kicking unhealthy anger at yourself or others.

1.  Stop:  Stop thinking about yourself, how you feel, what you’ve done.

2.  Shift:  Shift your focus to the present moment.  Ask yourself, “what can I do right now to make things better?”

3.  Set a Goal:  What outcome do you wish to achieve?

4.  Strategize:  What are some ways to achieve that goal?

5.  Start:  Begin action toward achieving your goal.

The FIVE-S method works by pulling you out of the self-absorption.   Songwriter Sarah McLaughlin calls it, “that sweet madness that glorious sadness that brings me to my knees.”  Join the human race.  We are all a family of messy, imperfect, smelly creatures who occasionally do something wondrous and beautiful.  Philosopher Michael Polanyi says we are moral beings grafted onto bestiality.  We’re animals with some kind of capacity for self-examination.  We can learn.  Even I learned never to go into a bathroom with keys in my pocket.