What’s wrong with me?
I can’t believe I did that – again!
I look so fat in these jeans.
Why am I so careless?
I’m never going to figure this out.
My inner-dialogue used to sound a lot like this. And I know, I’m not alone. It seems like most of us struggle with an inordinate amount of self-criticism.
If you’re highly self-critical or have a harsh inner-critic, you think poorly of yourself; you say critical, negative, demoralizing things to yourself. You accentuate your faults and ignore your strengths and accomplishments.
Criticism chips away at your self-esteem. It leads to hopelessness and shame. Contrary to popular belief, criticism doesn’t help us learn to do better. It actually reinforces negative beliefs about ourselves and turns on the anxiety-driven fight-flight-freeze part of our brain, making it hard for us to learn and change our behavior. So, if it was your boss or spouse or parent who was constantly criticizing you, I’d probably tell you to keep your distance. But when the criticism is coming from inside your own head, it’s a harder problem to solve. Clearly, you can’t stop listening to yourself. So, we need to learn to change our thoughts.
Self-criticism is learned.
If you were criticized a lot as a child, you may (unconsciously or consciously) think you deserve criticism. When you’re told you’re stupid or fat or lazy repeatedly, you start to believe it. And then, even after your parents, teachers or other critics from childhood no longer have your ear, you may find that you’ve taken over their job – you’re criticizing yourself because it seems so natural, so deserved.
Criticism stems from unrealistic expectations.
We also criticize ourselves because we have unrealistic expectations. Whether you realize it or not, self-criticism is built on perfectionism – impossibly high standards, the belief that you should never make a mistake, and that nothing you do is ever good enough. With this perfectionistic mindset, I could always find something to criticize myself about. And let’s face it, when you’re scanning for mistakes, for evidence that you’re inferior, you’re always going to find it; not because you are inferior, but because you’ve put yourself under a microscope and you’re only looking for signs that you’re inadequate and you’re throwing out all evidence that you’re adequate, normal, or as good as everyone else.
Transform self-criticism into self-acceptance.
The road from self-criticism to self-acceptance can be a tough one. It requires us to challenge our negative thoughts and consider that we’ve been relying on distorted thoughts, inaccurate beliefs, and unrealistic expectations for years. It requires us to discard the notions that self-criticism is helpful and deserved.
Here some ways to get started.
- Look for positives and cultivate a more balanced view of yourself. Intentionally notice your strengths, the things you do right, your progress, and effort. This exercise works best when you take a few minutes daily to write down the positives, reflect on them, and let them sink in.
- Challenge your inner-critic. Not all of our thoughts are accurate and you can weed out the inaccurate ones by being inquisitive and questioning whether they are true. When you have a self-critical thought, ask yourself these questions in an effort to create more accurate thoughts.
How do I know this thought is true?
What evidence do I have to support it? What evidence do I have to refute it?
Is my thought/belief based on facts or opinions?
Is this thought helpful?
Am I overgeneralizing or jumping to conclusions?
Is this what I want to think about myself?
What would I say to myself if I was more accepting and self-compassionate?
- Practice using helpful self-talk. Below are some examples that I use. You, of course, can change these or come up with your own.
Everyone makes mistakes. This isn’t a big deal.
I don’t need to be perfect.
This is stressful. What do I need right now?
I’m not stupid (or any negative adjective), I’m stressed.
With lots of practice, you’ll be able to replace self-criticism with compassionate self-talk. But in the beginning, you may not notice a self-critical thought until after you’ve had it. In which case, practice self-compassion after the fact as a way to teach yourself how you want to think. You might gently say to yourself, “What I meant to say/think is that it’s okay to make a mistake. I’m not stupid; everyone has forgotten something important at home. I don’t need to make it harder by beating myself up about it.”
- Tell yourself what you needed to hear as a child. Another variation of the exercise above is to talk to your inner-child. Think about a younger version of yourself — the little girl or boy who suffered through criticism from others. What did s/he long to hear? What words would have given her/him comfort and reassurance? What would have built her/him up rather than tear her/him down? I’ve given some examples below.
You deserve to be treated with kindness.
You are lovable just the way you are.
You can count on me. I’ll always have your back.
I love you.
You don’t have to accept other people’s opinions as facts.
You don’t have to be perfect.
It’s okay to make a mistake.
- Focus on self-acceptance rather than self-improvement. There is definitely a place for self-improvement, but when we focus on self-improvement exclusively, we set ourselves up for self-criticism and never feeling good enough. Although it may seem backward, we actually need to accept ourselves first and then we can improve. In other words, self-acceptance isn’t the result of self-improvement. Self-acceptance makes self-improvement possible.
Self-acceptance doesn’t mean that I don’t want or need to change. It means that I accept myself as I am at this moment; I accept that I have limitations and flaws. I still want to learn and grow and improve, but I also accept who I am right now.
When I started accepting myself, I became less self-critical and started to create a loving relationship with myself. And when I started accepting rather than criticizing myself, I could change. I was calmer and felt safe. I was less defensive more open to learning. I could gently correct myself and accept constructive feedback.
Try speaking to yourself with love and acceptance and I think you, too, will find that your self-criticism gradually drifts away.