Mental Mythbusters: You Have to Be Hard on Yourself

It’s kind of hard to believe, but it’s happened. After a grueling day and a half of many games and incredible challenges to overcome, your team has gotten itself into the position of simply needing to win its last match of the Swiss round and you’re into the Top 4 of a GP for the first time. The excitement is palpable, the nerves tense, and the possibilities of what could happen start racing through your mind.

The time has come. Your team sits down to play the pivotal match and the round begins. You’re playing Standard, and you’ve been piloting B/W Aggro well all day long. You feel like you’re on fire, and you go into your final match feeling confident and focused. After taking a quick game 1, you look over at your teammate furthest from you and notice that he’s looking frustrated and upset. He lost his first game.

You think nothing of it, finish sideboarding, and begin the second game of your match. Your second game goes just as well as your first. Your opponent stumbles a bit on their first few turns, missing a couple of land-drops, and you punish them for it. You handily win game 2 and finish your match 2-0. At this point, you start focusing on your teammates’ situations and find out that the match is tied at one match a piece. All your teammate on the far end from you has to do is win his match and you’re into the Top 4.

About halfway into his game, your teammate makes a critical mistake and that completely swings the momentum of the game into his opponent’s favor. He looks distraught and disjointed. From there, he’s never able to catch up. He’s just fallen too far behind. His opponent quickly runs away with the game, the match finishes with your opponents winning 2-1, and you find yourself knocked out of contention for the Top 4.

Your teammate who cost the team the match is beside himself. He’s on the verge of tears. He knows he’s let himself down, and most importantly, he knows he’s let his team down. He hurriedly packs up his deck, collects his gear, and storms out of the tournament hall. After collecting your own gear and heading out, you see your teammate sitting by himself. You approach him to speak to him.

What would you say to him in that moment?

Throughout your time playing competitive Magic, I’m sure you’ve made a ton of mistakes, performed stupid misplays, and played really badly at times. How do you treat yourself in those kinds of moments? How do you react and behave towards yourself when you do poorly, fall short, or fail at something? Are you kind, understanding, and compassionate toward yourself? Or are you harsh, nasty, and severely negative toward yourself?

Today’s mental mythbuster is simple: Debunk the myth that, in order to become a better player or succeed in Magic, you have to be hard on yourself and self-critical when you fall short or fail. Like the other mental myths I’ve discussed previously, this is a truism perpetuated by modern-day society and it comes from the idea that it’s somehow virtuous and noble to be unhappy and critical toward yourself when you fail at something. It’s another one of these concepts that is so heavily ingrained and that we’re so conditioned to believe, few people stop to question it.

Well, the answer is that it’s not true. In fact, the complete opposite is true. Scientific research has overwhelmingly shown that bouts of heavy self-criticism and being hard on yourself have a slew of negative side-effects, from decreased performance levels and increased failure to detrimental impacts on overall mental health.

At the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, five separate studies were conducted to examine the effects of self-criticism on goal pursuit across a variety of domains. The results of all of the five studies demonstrated the same thing: the consistent pattern of a negative association between self-criticism and goal progress. In other words, the more self-critical and hard people were toward themselves, the more they harmed their progression toward the stated goals they wanted to achieve.

Ricks Warren, PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School. Elke Smeets, PhD is a lecturer of psychology and neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Dr. Kristin Neff is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas. They once published a joint article on the effects of self-criticism. Their research concluded the following: “Self-critical individuals experience feelings of unworthiness, inferiority, failure, and guilt. They engage in constant and harsh self-scrutiny and evaluation, fear being disapproved, fear being criticized, and fear losing the approval and acceptance of others.”

Golan Shahar is a professor of clinical health and developmental health psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. He is also the author of a book called Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism. Golan’s research on self-criticism has concluded the following: “Self-criticism is a tendency to set unrealistically high standards and to adopt a punitive, derogatory stance toward the self once these are not met, as invariably they are not because of their ever-raising nature. Self-criticism is a trait that has been shown to lead to numerous forms of psychopathology: Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and bi-polar disorder symptoms. It can lead to psychosomatic symptoms whereby the mental struggles manifest in physical problems like fatigue and pain.”

As shown, when you’re harsh and self-critical towards yourself, you’re not helping yourself in any meaningful way. You’re actually creating the opposite effect. You’re getting in your own way and sabotaging yourself. You’re not fostering any positive progress. You’re holding yourself back. Becoming a better player and succeeding within the game doesn’t require you to get angry with yourself, beat yourself up, come down harshly on yourself, or be extremely self-critical and hard on yourself when you make mistakes, play badly, or fail to win. In fact, the complete opposite is true. The more self-compassionate and supportive you are towards yourself during experiences of failure, the more you increase everything from performance levels and success rates to overall mental well-being.

Researchers at UC Berkeley wanted to see how self-compassion would affect students’ behaviors after doing poorly on a test and their performance levels going forward. In four experiments, the researchers examined the hypothesis that self-compassion motivates people to improve personal weaknesses, moral transgressions, and test performance. The results were overwhelmingly conclusive. The students who were more self-compassionate than the others received the following benefits:

  • Expressed greater incremental beliefs about a personal weakness.
  • Reported greater motivation to make amends.
  • Spent more time studying for a difficult test following an initial failure.
  • Exhibited a preference for upward social comparison after reflecting on a personal weakness.
  • Reported greater motivation to change the weakness.

Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Education Psychology at the University of Texas, is one of the world’s leading researchers on self-compassion and its effect on people. Her years of research on self-compassion has overwhelmingly and conclusively yielded the following results: “Self-compassion is positively associated with life satisfaction, wisdom, happiness, optimism, curiosity, learning, social connectedness, personal responsibility, higher levels of motivation, and emotional resilience.”

Now, it’s important to be really clear about something. The act of being self-compassionate and understanding toward yourself in moments of failure does not meant that you’re ignoring your weaknesses, diminishing your mistakes, or making excuses for yourself. This is a huge misconception that many athletes and competitors have when it comes to something like self-compassion. They feel that if they’re compassionate and positive towards themselves when they fail that they’re giving themselves a pass or taking away their competitive edge.

You’re not doing any of that, and it’s a false fear. Being self-compassionate and supportive towards yourself isn’t about ignoring your weaknesses, diminishing your mistakes, or making excuses for yourself, and it certainly doesn’t take away your competitiveness. Self-compassion is about creating a more constructive response to failure where rather than attacking yourself for failing, you simply accept your results for what they are and see them as inevitable speed bumps along the path towards where you want to go. It’s recognizing that you didn’t get the result you wanted, but that the failure you experienced isn’t some sort of sign or signal that you’re a terrible player, that you’ll never be good enough, that things will never get better, and that you should just give up.

I have a saying I love to use: “There’s a difference between being hard on yourself and being honest with yourself.”

Getting better as a player and achieving your goals doesn’t require you to be hard on yourself. It just requires you to be honest with yourself. Those are two completely different things. Being honest with yourself doesn’t require you to be hard on yourself. When you make a mistake in a game, you don’t need to tell yourself that you’re an awful player or that you’re an idiot. You just need to accept what happened, focus on finding the solution to that mistake, and commit to applying that solution going forward. When you lose a game, match, or tournament, you don’t need to condemn yourself for coming up short. You just need to accept that result, be at peace with it, analyze your performance, pinpoint the ways for you to improve, and be positive and supportive as you move forward.

So, as I bring this article to close, I want to go back to that situation I put you in with your teammate who cost your team a Top 4 place at the GP. I asked you a really important question. What would you say to him in that moment? Would you try to lift him up, support him, and positively encourage him? Or would you tear into him, come down hard on him, and lash out at him? I’m willing to bet that you’d try to lift him up. I’m willing to bet that you’d be supportive. I’m willing to bet that you’d try to positively encourage him and be compassionate towards him. And this is the most important principle of this entire article I want to illustrate:

If you’re willing to treat a teammate like that in moments of failure, why can’t you treat yourself the same way?

Are you less deserving of kindness and compassion? Are you less worthy of receiving encouragement and support? Of course you’re not, and you shouldn’t think or act like you are. Start practicing the Reverse Gold Rule: In moments of failure, treat yourself the way you’d treat others. You’re going to show kindness, compassion, encouragement, support, and understanding towards others when they experience hard times. If you can act that way towards them, then you can do the same for yourself, and you should do the same for yourself. You’ll be better off for it.

If being less hard on yourself and more compassionate towards yourself is an issue you think you struggle with as a player, I wrote a book about improving at the mental side of Magic where I go much deeper on the topic, more than I can in one article. Check it out and give it a read. I think you’ll get a ton of benefit from it and really enjoy it.

Once again, I genuinely appreciate you reading, and I’ll see you next week!

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