Whether we want to or not, we all have an inner critic inside who speaks to us about the things we do, the things we don’t do, our goals, our successes, and our perceived failures. An inner critic is the judgmental inner dialogue we have with ourselves; for some of us, the inner critic shows up rarely and/or barely! But for a lot of us, our inner critic is far too involved in our day-to-day thought process.
As a coping mechanism, we may adopt perfectionism as the tool to silence our inner critic, adding pressure rather than choosing compassion and alleviating it.
If your inner critic is particularly loud or persistent or has been with you for a very long time, you might find the idea of showing yourself compassion rather than giving in to your inner critic laughable. But your inner critic and your inner nurturer have a lot in common: both are concerned with your success in life and both are in place to protect and guide you. The difference is that your inner critic is lousy at actually supporting you.
The trick is to flip the script on the inner critic and reframe the dialogue you have with yourself! Try not to be so hard on yourself about your inner critic, and try not to assume that others don’t struggle with the same problem.
Sometimes, our inner critic comes from the idea that other people have unkind and unforgiving thoughts about us, whether based on our best guess or supported by comments that may have been made in the past. While there is something to be said about the impact others’ negative words or lack of support can have on us, we ultimately come to find that it is our own willingness to believe those words that get us down. When the negative messaging we receive affirms our own doubts, fears, or insecurities, that is when we really take them to heart. Sooner or later, we don’t even need negative words from others to make us feel small; we have become our own worst enemy.
There is this wonderful quote I read online that said, “Be careful of the way you speak to your children – it becomes their inner voice.” In your formative years, whether you were at home or at school, you received messages from the people around you about the way the world works and your place in it. If you had adults or caregivers around you when you were growing up who spoke to you judgmentally, you are at higher risk of having adopted those comments as your inner dialogue.
Most of the time, when I ask my clients why they think so negatively about themselves, they give me a list of past failures and mistakes. It is heartbreaking to hear the way they describe themselves, like calling themselves a loser, a failure, or even stupid. Their idea of past losses or mistakes range in what occurred, when, and for how long. Examples can include how they dropped out of college and have one or two courses left to complete their degree but haven’t returned to do so; stories about failed relationships or imperfect parenting moments; not ascending the ladder at work fast enough; the list is endless. Since these are real-life events that have happened, my clients cite them as evidence to prove the validity of their negative thinking about themselves.
This shows up a lot in people who have been left to “fend for themselves” in one way or another; only children, eldest children who were expected to lead by example; children who weren’t raised in a stable household; children who moved a lot. Early experience taught you that you were more than capable of creating outcomes for yourself, and that pattern continued as you grew up. You may have been praised for your ability to time manage, or pack your own lunch, or navigate the city on your own. This can easily manifest itself as a mantle, worn throughout life, where your ability to produce results or achieve success without assistance becomes a part of your identity. This can lead to feelings of devastation and failure when you fall short on a task or goal.
The idea that you might be able to adjust or completely reverse your way of thinking might sound far-fetched, but it can be achieved by breaking the process down into steps and having patience. This sort of adjustment isn’t going to happen overnight, and it would be counterproductive to think that it could.
If you need to, write reminders in your planner or set a reminder in your phone, encouraging yourself to be kind to yourself, to celebrate yourself, and to have patience. Involve the people you trust in your journey by letting them in on your goals and process. There is no shame in saying to someone, “I am trying to speak more kindly to myself. If you hear me talking down to myself, can you please say to me, ‘You’re hurting your feelings?” or some other short phrase that you can design that you think will have a strong impact on your thought process.
Take notes, journal, take photos; make a record of your plans, your goals, and your process. Return to these captures and reflect on how you’ve felt in the time since you recorded them. Remind yourself where and why you started to unlearn the habit of listening to your inner critic over anything or anyone else.
When you are learning to be your loudest cheerleader, you will experience changes in your thoughts and emotions. I would encourage you to acknowledge these changes as they come. For example, when you are moving out of your comfort zone, you can tell yourself, “This is new for me, and that’s okay.” Don’t let the knowledge that this is a step-by-step process make you feel overwhelmed, and try to be patient with yourself as you implement new tools and tactics.
There is an analogy I share with my clients – listen up, because you are getting a very impactful analogy I usually save for therapy sessions. I tell them to imagine that they are on a football field. If football doesn’t work for you, it can be a basketball court or a tennis court, or a baseball pitch. I tell them, “The game you are playing is you vs. Life, and the end goal is not to defeat Life, but more so to live your life to the fullest.”
I then ask them this one major question: “Who is sitting over in the stadium seats?” Patients sometimes list their loved ones: friends, family members. Sometimes, they tell me that no one is sitting in the seats; there is no one that is cheering them on. When that is the case, guess where we start to fill up those seats? We start with YOU!
Imagine that there is a copy of you, who looks just like you, sitting in one of those seats. And that version of you is incredibly hyped up, loud and energetic as one can be about you and the game you are going to play. Start there. Visualize yourself in the arena and visualize yourself physically watching and cheering you on. Maybe you will picture a younger version of yourself sometimes, the younger you who would be so amazed at all the things you know how to do now. Maybe you will picture ten of you instead of one. Over time, if you’re the only one in your arena, you might begin to realize that you can add fellow attendees. Or you might be happy being the only person in attendance to witness all your successes and clap with support when you stumble.
Stumbles will happen. Don’t go into the game expecting anything different. Just know that the game will go on beyond them, and you will be okay.
Forgiving and forgetting are two very different things. If you struggle to forgive yourself, remind yourself that you do not have to forget in order to do so; this means that you will remember what you learned from the mistake, and hopefully, the mistake will have been worth it. Remind yourself that every time you learn a new skill or experience a new situation, you are in prime territory for making a mistake. Are you hard on yourself for how much food you dropped when you were learning to use a spoon? Of course not. The same is true for most mistakes. They are errors that occur because we don’t have the information or skills to do better. When we view mistakes as teaching tools and opportunities, we are more able to forgive ourselves for making them. We are also more able to not make them again, which is the important thing.
If you are able to sit quietly with yourself and think of the incidents or errors that haunt you most, take some time to do that. Think of a mistake you made and deconstruct it. Was it the first time it happened? Did you learn from it? What did you learn? Tell yourself, “I made this mistake when I didn’t know better, but now I do.” or, “I am grateful for what I learned after I made this mistake.”
Perhaps you have made the same mistake several times, and you feel guilty about it. Remind yourself that there is no perfect, fast, simple way to adjust our habits or our way of thinking. For example, it can be easy to say, “I always fall for the wrong person” and blame ourselves after a breakup. Perhaps we learn a little bit every time, but we wish we could just flip a switch and suddenly see and do things differently. If you feel this way, remind yourself that your temperament, the way you were nurtured, the way relationships were modeled to you and other life experiences all play a role in informing how you perceive interpersonal relationships. You may be someone who had to forgive your loved ones often and now feels “too forgiving” of others. Thank yourself for the measures you took in the past to protect your mental health and help you survive your situation, then refocus on why you would like to adjust your mindset. Be careful to balance taking responsibility with understanding why you see or do things a certain way, and have grace for yourself as you learn, practice, make a mistake, and practice some more.
Making the switch from bullying yourself to cheering for yourself isn’t an all-or-nothing process, where you have to completely eliminate all negative self-talk before you can begin to cheer yourself on. In fact, it’s the opposite. As you work toward visualizing your cheer section and practicing forgiveness for past mistakes, complement those efforts by celebrating your wins. This may mean feeling down and then feeling proud within the span of an hour; that’s okay! Our emotions and thoughts are elastic, and “forcing” a transition can actually help us to change our mentality.
For example, say you have a big project at work that involves a lot of steps and a lot of planning. Something might have been missed, or miscommunicated, causing a hiccup, and you might feel down about it. But another aspect might be going really well; have come out better than intended or be ahead of schedule. Take a moment to process the aspect that is causing a little bit of trouble to sort out how to proceed, sure. You might even feel a lingering sense of dread about it, one that is still there when you realize how well the other part of your plan is going.
Force yourself to celebrate your success, anyway! Give yourself a high-five if no one is around to do it with you, or find someone you’re working with and congratulate them. When you hear yourself saying, “This aspect of the project is going really well and we’re ahead of schedule! Congratulations!” you will know that those congratulations are also for you. In fact, your colleague may reciprocate and congratulate you.
You can also make note of your successes and tell a friend or family member, someone whose opinion means a lot to you, and say you’d like to celebrate with them. While it is important to be able to celebrate yourself completely on your own, involving someone you love spending time with can help motivate you in the beginning, or at times when you’re having trouble being your own biggest cheerleader. The act of telling someone else is still motivated by you and for you, so you’re still doing the work to celebrate yourself.
As you make goals and approach tasks in your life, make note of where you will have the opportunity to celebrate and how you might like to do so. Make celebration part of your process and have fun figuring out how you’d like to celebrate. Whether you decide to buy something from your Home Design Pinterest board, or have an extra long nap, or treat yourself to your favorite dessert at your favorite restaurant, or a massage, or any number of things, your plan to celebrate becomes an unconscious plan to succeed. Will mistakes, delays, and mishaps still happen? Of course. But they won’t feel as big or important when you’ve celebrated six other things that week.
The key to making any sort of the change in your thoughts and habits is consistency; as long as you keep coming back to try again, you’re doing alright. There will be some days that are more of a struggle than others, and that’s to be expected. Learning to cheer louder than your inner critic can speak will take time and practice, as is the case with learning most new things. Prepare to have difficult days where you’re not as good at drowning out the negativity and know that other days and times will be better.
Always celebrate your wins – whether you’re rethinking the way you feel about a project that has a lot of ups and downs or whether you’re celebrating the fact that now you celebrate! Be patient with yourself, forgiving of yourself, and confident in your ability to support and value yourself and the way you play the game of life!
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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