For majority of us, self-criticism is a part of everyday life. We see it as a normal response to negative life events and overwhelming situations. In fact, we do it so often that half of the time we don’t even realise we’re doing it. But self-criticism is not second nature, it’s a habit that’s learned during the childhood years.
If not managed correctly, negative self-talk can quickly get out of hand and negatively affect our mental health and wellbeing - being particularly damaging to those struggling with mental health issues, as Current Psychiatry reports that self-criticism is associated with
· Eating disorders
· Post-traumatic stress disorder
· Suicidal attempts
· Poorer interpersonal relationships
Toxic self-talk can even stand in the way of your mental health recovery – being associated with poorer outcome of CBT and IPT treatments!
Understanding the inner critic
Your inner critic is the voice that narrates the world inside of your head. The voice that’s always there, constantly observing, commenting and making judgments. It can either be your best friend or your worst critic, depending on the beliefs you picked up throughout the years.
Your inner critic is characterised by self-doubt, judgement and punishment, catastrophic predictions, feelings of guilt, inferiority, unworthiness and shame. It may sound something like this:
· I’m going to fail, and everyone will see/laugh
· What’s wrong with me? I can’t do anything right!
· I’ll never get that [x]. I’m not smart/pretty/ funny enough. I don’t have the right knowledge/qualifications.
Why does this voice exist?
Michael A. Singer (author of The Untethered Soul) argues that the voice is there to narrate the world for us by processing what’s happening on the outside and repeating it on the inside. Why do we need to do this? The world is a big, scary place that’s too real for us to handle. Narrating it allows us to feel more comfortable and more in control than we really are. It also makes us feel more important and allows us to experience a reality that’s centred around our own experience. Singer says, “a tree is no longer just a tree in the world that has nothing to do with you; it is a tree that you saw, labelled, and judged”.
How to fight self-criticism with compassion
Using compassion to combat self-criticism involves treating yourself with kindness and gentleness in moments when you would naturally be critical of yourself. Self-compassion is associated with better treatment outcomes for mental health issues such as depression. It’s also a great coping strategy for dealing with negative emotions.
Without further ado, here’s 7 simple steps for you to follow.
Notice how you talk to yourself
We’re so used to this voice in our head that we often don’t realise when the dialogue gets too harsh. Start paying attention to your inner dialogue as well as triggers for negative self-talk. A good idea would be to do this as you’re standing in the shower – when thoughts come flooding in. Ask yourself how often do you:
· Compare yourself to others
· Find it hard to accept compliments
· Make catastrophic/exaggerated/unreasonable predictions (e.g. my plane will crash)
· Relive embarrassing events in your mind
· Persist in analysing your mistakes
Celebrate every win – big or small
Our inner critic tends to focus a lot on our fails and not so much on our wins. Did you step outside of your comfort zone today by meeting a new person? Did you get out of bed when it felt really hard? Praise yourself for the small achievements. Saying “I’m so proud that I did that” or “Well done” can make a world of difference. Learn how to be your number one fan and your best friend
Many people find it difficult to compliment themselves; particularly when it comes to their physical appearance. However, we find it shockingly easy to be critical of even the tiniest flaws – we notice them, we pick on them, we point them out. It’s easy to find things we dislike about ourselves, which can be damaging to our confidence and mental health.
It’s important that you learn to focus on the things that you like about your body. Practice this while standing in front of the mirror and find at least 2-3 parts of your body that you like or are grateful for. If your mind begins to give you a hard time, it might be easier to start by feeling grateful for the functions that your body performs and the things it allows you to do. For example:
· I love my arms because they allow me to hug my children.
· I love my body because it works day and night to keep me alive.
Recognise your limits
Learn to resist the need to be perfect - understand that you’re only human and humans are imperfect and bound to make mistakes. Recognise and praise your efforts instead. You will do better next time.
Treat yourself like you would a loved-one
Instead of being judgmental and harsh towards yourself when faced with difficult situations, offer yourself come well-deserved warmth and kindness. Try to talk to yourself as you would to your best friend, mother or child.
Imagine that it’s not you, but your loved one that is faced with these feelings/circumstances. Would you be a critical as you’re being of yourself right now? What advice and support would you offer them? Would you help them see, more clearly, why their situation is not as bad as they think?
Treat yourself with the same kind of love.
Rationalise your thoughts
Examine how rational your inner dialogue really is by writing down a list of evidence in support for and against your negative thoughts/beliefs. This can be particularly helpful with catastrophic or exaggerated predictions, such as “I will never find love” or “Nobody likes me”.
Use mindfulness to soothe yourself
One practice suggested by Current Psychiatry is to be mindful of your emotional pain during difficult situations that trigger negative self-talk. Noticing that “this is hard”, “I’m feeling pain right now” or “this is making me feel embarrassed and I just want to go home” can evoke feelings of empathy and compassion towards yourself. It can help you react with love and support – it can be helpful to ask, “what can I do to make myself feel better right now?”.