Give up on your own double standards

"I'm a failure" - would you talk this way to a friend?

Do you operate on a double standard in your daily life? That is, are you supportive and generous towards other people but often harsh and self-critical towards yourself?


The double-standard technique is a simple but powerful cognitive therapy strategy. It’s especially useful if you have perfectionist tendencies or are prone to self-criticism.


Here are a few (hypothetical) examples of double standards that cause unnecessary emotional suffering.


Jack lost his job and berates himself, saying he is a “failure” and a “loser”. However, he expresses shock when asked if he would use such language to a friend who lost their job. “God, no”, he replies. “I’d sympathise with them and tell them not to take it personally and to stay positive”.


Louise is praised after winning a college competition, but she discounts her achievement. “Anyone could have done it if they put as much time into it as I did”, she says. “Besides, my performance could have been better anyway”. However, when asked if she would react this way to a friend who won a competition, she says no; she would have warmly congratulated them.


Aoife’s boyfriend ends their relationship. Depressed, she berates her appearance. “I’m fat and ugly, no wonder he left me”, she says to herself. However, Aoife would not dream of talking this way to a friend in the same position, accepting it is abusive and wrong.


This double standard is especially common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is often characterised by guilt and an inflated sense of responsibility.


For example, Chloe keeps checking the cooker is turned off before leaving the house. She thinks, it will be all my fault if the house burns down, I couldn't live with that. If you said to Chloe, imagine you're away and your husband is home alone. He forgets to turn off the cooker and the house burns down. Would you blame him for the rest of your life and say it was unforgivable? No – but she would see it as unforgivable if she was the one who forgot.


Another OCD example. Mary worries she will get Covid-19 and pass it on to her parents, causing them to be sick or die. She thinks this would be unforgivable so she takes extreme measures to avoid getting the virus. However, when asked what she would say to a friend in this position, Mary says they should be kind to themselves and not beat themselves up, that they can only do so much.



Smiling girl.
You will be happier if you break your own demanding, self-sacrificing rules.

People sometimes defend their double standards, saying it motivates them and keeps them on their toes. However, harsh self-punishment is not only cruel, it's unhelpful and counter-productive; people will often avoid or delay taking on new challenges because they fear they might fall short and be besieged by their own self-attacking voice.


Some people can be hard to persuade on this point, almost wearing their own excessively high standards as a badge of honour. They might say, "Yes, I recognise I am kinder to others than to myself, but I won't lower my standards; I must endure hardship in order to be competent and moral".


If so, here’s a question. If you have a son or daughter (and if you don’t, imagine you do) – would you want them to live up to your standards? Would you want them to live life like you do?


Or picture a newborn baby and imagine they go on to live by your demanding, self-sacrificing rules. Does this seem right? Or does it seem harsh, cruel, a recipe for unhappiness?


If you don’t want your son or daughter to be plagued by a self-attacking inner voice, you shouldn’t want it for yourself.


Aim to become more aware of examples in your own life where this double standard is at play. If you find yourself drifting into self-critical thoughts, ask yourself: would I talk to a friend this way? Ask yourself, am I compassionate and realistic when discussing a friend's problems, but absolutist and unrealistic when thinking about my own?

Aim to give up on this double standard. If you wouldn't talk this way to a friend, you shouldn't talk this way to yourself.


(First published in Southern Star on 26/05/2022)