Does criticizing yourself come all-too naturally to you?

It does for a lot of people. In fact, you might criticize yourself so often that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. It’s like it happens automatically. Like breathing. And you don’t discriminate. That is, you bash yourself for anything. Your weight. Your skin. Your thighs. Your anxiety. Your sadness or some other feeling you think is “wrong.”

And then you interpret those criticisms as truths. Stains on your character. Red flags of your inadequacy.

But these are not facts. They are not revelations. These criticisms are part of a habit. Self-criticism feels automatic simply because we’ve done it for so long. We’ve practiced it for so long. Thankfully, however, we can replace this habit with a healthier, more empowering practice.

In Worry Less, Live More: The Mindful Way through Anxiety Workbook, authors Susan M. Orsillo, Ph.D, and Lizabeth Roemer, Ph.D, underscore the importance of cultivating curious awareness. They suggest getting curious about our anxiety. But really curious awareness is a powerful approach for everything, especially how we speak to and about ourselves.

That is, instead of criticizing ourselves, our feelings, our circumstances and our thoughts, we observe what’s happening. Without judgment. Without getting caught up in the web of negativity. Without crucifying ourselves.

What does this actually look like?

In the book, Orsillo and Roemer share examples of curious awareness (versus critical awareness). Here’s a selection:

Critical awareness: “What is wrong with me? Why do I worry so much?”

  • Curious awareness: “I’m noticing that I have a lot of thoughts about what might go wrong.”

Critical awareness: “I’m such a mess!”

  • Curious awareness: “I’m noticing a lot of physical sensations of anxiety in my body right now, and I keep having the thought that I’m a mess.”

Critical awareness: “I don’t even know what’s wrong with me.”

  • Curious awareness: “I’m having a lot of thoughts and feelings all at once, and it’s hard for me to sort them out.”

Critical awareness: “I’m so pathetic and weak—other people aren’t this anxious.”

  • Curious awareness: “I notice that a lot of critical thoughts are coming up, including the thought that being anxious makes me pathetic and weak.”

Orsillo and Roemer also include an excellent exercise to make curious awareness a habit, so we can “counteract our automatic judgments and entanglement with our experiences.” They suggest taking some time each day to practice.

The exercise includes these three steps: Notice what is happening, and that you’re having a reaction. Observe what is happening: “What is happening in my body, mind, heart and actions?” Describe your experience: “How can I put this into words? What is the chain of responses that unfolded? What reactions did I have to my experience? What judgments arose? What actions did I take? What happened next?”

If you’ve criticized yourself for years, cultivating curiosity can feel unfamiliar and even wrong. Be gentle and patient with yourself as you traverse a new terrain. Remind yourself that it’s a process. It’s practice. There are no mess-ups. Every “misstep” is simply information to, fittingly, become curious about.

Photo by Brooke Lark.