I’m going to mess up.
I’m so stupid.
I’m a failure.
I did well that time, but anyone could have.
Does this kind of self-talk sound familiar?
In a world where we expect so much from ourselves, it’s easy to fall into a trap of not feeling good enough. The way we talk to ourselves when we fail to meet our or someone else’s expectations is important. In these situations, it makes a huge difference whether we provide some comfort, kindness, and encouragement to ourselves, or we turn to self-criticism. Unfortunately, too often, we choose the latter.
Where Does All This Self-Criticism Come From?
Self-criticism is an inner voice that takes a derogative stance when we don’t meet our expectations. It includes negative judgments of your abilities, physical appearance, intelligence, behaviour, even thoughts and feelings.
Rigidly demanding parents, teachers, culture or religion, unhealthy relationships, or friendships that undermined our confidence can all be the root of our self-criticism.
When we are young, we soak everything from our environment like a sponge; we learn about the world, about ourselves and other people from everything we see or hear. The messages important people in our lives send are crucial in shaping what we will believe and how we will behave. For example, if your parents had incredibly high expectations and harshly criticized you for every small mistake, their words may become an integral part of your inner voice, translated into self-judgment. They probably had good intentions – they wanted you to build working habits, to do well in school, to strive for achievement, and minimize mistakes, because they believed this would help you succeed in life and be happy.
This kind of self-talk was probably helpful to you at some point – in order to avoid punishment (both external, such as, for example, being forbidden to go out or watch TV for a month, and internal, which is more powerful – experiencing guilt and shame from failing to meet someone’s expectations), you did well, you achieved great things, and you derived a sense of pleasure from that.
So, not only that self-criticism became an integral part of how you talk to yourself earlier in life, but it’s also kept and strengthened because you may believe it’s a useful strategy. However, as you may realize now as an adult, although self-criticism may seem like it can serve certain functions, it can be psychologically devastating.
How To Tame Your Inner Critic (And Why It’s So Important)
Self-criticism is like living with a bully. That scolding voice that’s giving you a hard time over small things, always looking over your shoulder and keeping inventory of your mistakes, can seriously hold you back in reaching your goals and undermine how you feel about yourself. Self-criticism brings an overriding sense of not being good enough, can keep us from thinking realistically and from being present in our lives, and can contribute to feeling anxious or depressed.
By criticizing ourselves, we focus on our (many times non-existent, or at least exaggerated) weaknesses, or think irrationally. This moves us away from constructive evaluation and inhibits our capacity to be fully present and rationally and actively engage in our lives. Instead, we get so preoccupied with shame, guilt, and frustration that we may make even more mistakes and feel awful about ourselves.
An important thing is – you don’t have to be the victim of your harsh inner voice. Your thoughts have a powerful impact on how you feel and behave.
So how to be more friendly toward yourself when times are challenging? Here are a few tips and techniques.
1. Actively notice and challenge your inner critic
Sometimes, the little voice that puts us down is so embedded in our daily inner monologue that we don’t even notice how harsh it is. What we can do is to pay attention to what the voice is saying but not giving it the power over us. We can commit to notice it and treat it as someone who is unnecessarily rude or annoying, and actively stand up for ourselves, showing it how to be more kind.
Conquering that unrealistic, overexaggerating, harsh inner talk and replacing it with a soothing voice that is not only gentler and kinder, but also more realistic, is possible and more than beneficial. But it’s not easy. Proactively changing the way you talk to yourself may not feel natural immediately. And it’s okay – you are used to one way of thinking and it takes time to rewire your brain and create new pathways. The key is to catch yourself in those unrealistic and extreme statements and not let yourself get away with them.
You’re not good enough. – I don’t need to be perfect to be enough and loveable.
You’re so dumb – Whoops, I made a mistake. Let’s see how I can do better next time.
No one likes you – I don’t need to please everyone all of the time.
You will never make it. – This is really hard, but I believe in myself.
You never get anything right. – I haven’t figured it out yet. Learning is part of the process.
2. Develop a compassionate relationship with yourself
Self-compassion is a way of treating yourself with acceptance and understanding whether or not you behave intelligently, competently, or correctly. It’s having a friendly attitude and sending a message to ourselves: “I see you with your strengths and flaws and it’s okay, I accept the whole of you”.
This is a new concept for many people; it’s different from what we are used to. Thus, there are some misconceptions about it. Some people are afraid that, by being kind to themselves and refusing to engage in self-criticism, they will become lazy or self-indulgent. Others see it as a weakness, something that will stay in the way of their progress. We debunked some of these myths HERE, and provided some tips for practicing self-compassion, so you might want to take a look.
Like a good coach, self-compassion motivates us through love, kindness, and support. This helps us focus less on dwelling on our mistakes, and more on the present moment and moving forward. It is the opposite of self-criticism, which induces guilt and shame. On the surface, self-criticism can seem like it helps to motivate us to change, but in reality, it’s an inefficient motivator. First, because there is a high price to pay for it. And second, because self-criticism might keep us where we are for longer because we may be reluctant to admit our shortcomings, afraid of the overwhelming feeling of not being good enough if we do. In contrast, self-compassion provides us with emotional safety to see ourselves realistically and, from there, acknowledge our mistakes and try to do better.
3. What would you tell to your best friend?
Would you talk to your good friend the way you talk to yourself? When times are challenging and we feel bad, when we are dealing with failure or loss, the last thing we need is to be criticized. Instead, we need someone to help us see things from a realistic perspective and offer support, guidance, and reassurance.
You can be that friend to yourself. Thus, acknowledge your good qualities and abilities, make an effort to appreciate your uniqueness more, and offer caring and gentle words to yourself.
RAIN Technique for Dealing With Difficult Emotions
Sometimes, shame and guilt that come from self-criticism in situations when we make a mistake or fail at something, can be overwhelming for us. So overwhelming, that it becomes difficult to concentrate on anything else, or move away from self-loathing and self-judgment. What we need the most in these situations is something to help us ease the emotional chaos first, and then slowly start overcoming these intense feelings.
In these moments, the RAIN technique can be helpful. It’s a mindfulness technique used to soften and de-channel negative thoughts and provide a soothing balm for emotional pain. It can help you be your best friend instead of your own worst critic.
Take a step back and observe your thoughts and feelings. Be honest and acknowledge what you are feeling without trying to sweep it under the rug. Naming can also help, for example: “I feel worried right now” or “I feel so embarrassed for asking that question”.
“How am I feeling? Where do I feel it in my body?”
Step 2: ALLOW life to be just as it is
Accept that those thoughts and feelings are there, as part of your reality. No denial, no trying to remove or change them, no mental resistance. Just simply let them be there. This doesn’t mean you like them; it just means you are brave enough to face the reality within you.
“These thoughts and feelings are here. I can accept that, even if I don’t like it.”
Step 3: INVESTIGATE with kindness
Like a curious scientist, try to approach your state with interest and without judgment. You can investigate possible reasons you may be feeling this way, or ask if these feelings and thoughts are useful or in line with reality. Simply pause to ask questions so you can better understand what is happening.⠀
○ When did this feeling start?⠀
○ What triggered it?⠀
○ Have I felt this way before?⠀
○ What is this feeling trying to tell me?⠀
○ How realistic is my thinking?⠀
○ Is it helpful?⠀
○ What do I need right now?⠀
○ What can I do to support myself?
When you have an intense emotion, it can feel like it is the only part of you that matters at that moment. But you are not your thoughts and emotions. They come and go, and you can watch them like clouds flowing by. You are YOU, unique and complex, and this is just one of the countless experiences you had and will have.
You can use this technique to ground yourself and not feel consumed by negativity when everything seems just too much. However, we are all different which means that the same things don’t work for everyone or in every situation.
How do you deal with self-criticism? Will you apply some of these tips to your daily life? Let us know how it goes!
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Interested in learning more about coaching or therapy? Contact us today.
Aronfreed, J. (1964). The origin of self-criticism. Psychological Review, 71(3), 193.
Neff, K & Germer, C. (2019) Kind to me. Excerpt in Mindful, 6 (6).
Powers, T. A., Koestner, R., & Zuroff, D. C. (2007). Self–criticism, goal motivation, and goal progress. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(7), 826-840.
Brach, T. Working With Difficulties: The Blessings of RAIN. Tara Brach. Online HERE