Some of you may recognise a tendency to be quite self-critical at times. Do you have that inner critic that knows exactly which raw nerves to target? The one that pipes up just as we’re about to face something challenging so as to really kick that self-doubt into gear? Do you find yourself setting unreasonable expectations and then beating yourself up when you don’t manage to live up to them? Surprisingly or not, this is incredibly common. It has featured to some degree in the majority of people I have worked with; those who might be struggling with anxiety, low mood or relationship difficulties. I recognise it in myself and despite knowing what an impact it can have, still have to catch myself and challenge myself from time to time. So why are we so skilled at putting ourselves down? And more importantly, how can we tackle it to ensure it doesn’t have a significant impact on our sense of self and mood day to day?
If you had a friend who voiced out loud what our inner critics say to us day to day, they probably wouldn’t stay a friend for long. You also wouldn’t find yourself saying anything nearly as critical to someone else. We can be incredibly good at making others feel better about themselves, at recognising other people’s achievements and strengths, at showing compassion and kindness. Yet we can very often fail to do the same for ourselves. Often when it comes down to it, this is the result of feeling we don’t deserve the same level of kindness. It may be the result of poor self-confidence, which means it can be hard to recognise our own strengths. If our sense of self is poor, paying ourselves compliments, or even recognising an achievement for what it is, can result in cognitive dissonance; a sense of discomfort at two contradictory ideas or beliefs. Sometimes we feel there is a function to being self-critical; perhaps it pushes us to work harder, perhaps it stops us making mistakes or putting ourselves in situations where we might find ourselves out of our depth. While this may be the case, a balanced and objective stance can perform the same function without leaving us tackling tedious self-doubt. Perhaps it wouldn’t be a problem if we weren’t quite so good at it but inevitably, that inner critic skilfully taps into our deepest fears, doubts and worries. That negative voice can pick up on “failures” in a heartbeat and remind us of those painful “what ifs...” at the most unhelpful times. At the same time, we often have no inner cheerleader voice pointing out all those moments of success; those times we have navigated our way through difficult situations, or even just got through the day when we are feeling worse for wear.
So, what can we do the balance things out a little more? Here are some tips and ideas. Be warned; these sound simple but are not easy to achieve. Our inner critic can be such a habitual response, it will take time and conscious effort to combat.
- The first step is spotting that self-critical voice. There are a few ways of doing this; task yourself with keeping an eye on your thought patterns for just 5 mins at a time, at various intervals throughout the day; perhaps when you’re driving to work, during a break or over dinner. If there are any significant incidents in your day, monitor what your minds initial response to it is. Alternatively, you could try keeping a diary or a log of your responses to events day to day; note down the event, note your initial thoughts and note how it leaves you feeling.
- This is key. Once we can see that inner critic, we can start to notice the impact it has on our mood and actions. We can start to notice what a pain it is, how it sneaks into our lives and how it operates. Being able to take this perspective gives us options; we can then stand back and make a more informed choice of how we respond. Do we accept the validity of these negative thoughts? How much power are we going to give them in deciding our next move? How balanced and helpful do we think they are? It can be helpful to put aside how ‘true’ we think they are (this can be quite a tough inner battle to have with ourselves!). Start instead with “does this way of thinking help me in any way?”; Does it make you feel good? Does it motivate you? Does it support your confidence? If not, stop giving these thoughts so much power. They are just thoughts at the end of the day so tell your mind to pipe down.
- From here, there are different ways of challenging these negative thoughts. The key here is not about replacing them with super-happy, overly optimistic thoughts that won’t ring true. Instead, it is simply about assessing how valid the thought is and balancing it out – bring it back to the middle ground. It might be that you aren’t good at something, perhaps the inner critic is right on that. But perhaps it doesn’t need to be as catastrophic as the inner critic suggests. Perhaps instead, a more balanced thought is “I’m not great at that but I’ve made progress” or “I’m not good at that but I have other things in my life I’m good at”.
- Take off the filter. We are exceptionally good at spotting and holding onto evidence which supports our negative thoughts about ourselves. We are generally nowhere near as good as spotting evidence to the contrary; try and challenge yourself to spot evidence of success and progress. You will most likely surprise yourself.
- Open your eyes and ears to what others have to say. Again, we can be gifted at dismissing compliments or praise from those around us. Catch yourself in these moments; thank them and take it on board rather than explaining to them the numerous reasons they must be mistaken!
- Just to make our lives that little bit more difficult, we can also be very good at setting ourselves unrealistic goals or holding ourselves to very high expectations. Of course, then, when we inevitably can’t live up to them, we use this as prime material to beat ourselves up with. Let’s not give the inner critic even more power here. Revisit your goals and notice what expectations you are setting for yourself. Would you expect the same of others? If a friend laid these out, would you think they were fair or would you suggest to them that they chill out a bit?
- Self-comparison. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to tackle. As if the inner critic is not skilled enough at pointing out our flaws, it can be amazingly talented at pointing out comparisons to those around us. The difficulty with this is that there will always be someone out there who is better at something; more successful, prettier, less socially awkward…the list could go on. But at the end of the day, does focusing on these thoughts bring you any benefit or satisfaction? What are the chances that they too, have an inner critic pointing out their flaws?
- Once we have reduced the power these negative thoughts have, we can focus a lot of saved energy on restoring the balance. Do things to boost your sense of self and mood. Do it for you, and not for anyone else. Do something you enjoy, which makes you feel good. Take on a (manageable!) challenge and focus on the progress you are making.
- Above all, be compassionate to yourself. Take the same stance you would if you were talking to a friend; what would you say to them? Why do you not deserve the same level of kindness and understanding?
None of the above is easily done, especially if we have reached the point of routinely beating ourselves up. Give one or two of these ideas a go and see what you notice. When you inevitably fall into old patterns, just notice and gently remind yourself of what to try next time.
If this is an area you particularly struggle with, it can have a significant impact on our mood and levels of anxiety day to day. It may prove useful to have someone guide you through the process of noticing and challenging your thinking process. If you would like to think more about this, check out www.peterkinpsychology.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Given the difference this could make to your mindset and mood day to day, this could be an invaluable investment in your emotional well-being.
As an alternative, check out these locally run workshops including ‘Beating yourself up? Beating Self-Criticism and Self-Blame’ scheduled for 30th August 2017. www.peterkinpsychology.com/workshops