Do you ever wish you could turn the clock back for a do-over? Maybe you said something to a co-worker that came out the wrong way or hit “reply all” on an email only meant for one. Mistakes that only take a second to make, can take hours or more to get over. “I can’t believe I said that,” or “What was I thinking when I did that?” may repeat in your mind over and over again as you cringe in disbelief at your stupidity. And to make matters worse, ruminating about that one statement or action may remind you of other stupid things you have said or done in the past, triggering a downward spiral into the depths of remorse and shame.
So why do we do this? Why do we beat ourselves up over something that the other person has probably already forgotten about and moved on? Blame it on the self-critic! We all have one; that nagging little voice in our head that makes us feel like an idiot or somehow less-than. This voice can infiltrate our thoughts and affect our feelings and behaviors. Often, we wrongly accept this annoying voice as the truth, and we end up becoming our own worst enemy, sabotaging our self-respect, and our confidence in our worth and abilities.
Everyone has a critical voice. Everyone! And that’s okay, because this internal voice can offer input and feedback to help us grow and become aware of not only ourselves but others as well. When being self-critical turns to self-hating, however, this voice can be harmful to our mental health and well-being.
The inner critic develops in our early years. As children, we pick up on negative attitudes that our parents or caretakers may have towards us, towards others, or towards themselves. Not only do we pick up on these attitudes, we then turn them inward toward ourselves, forming our sense of self based on these attitudes. In other words, we internalize the external, adding fuel to the self-critic fire.
Growing up in an environment where there is a lot of stress, or where trust, respect, and/or love has been compromised, can also contribute to this negative analysis of ourselves. As a result, we may feel we are deficient in some way rather than putting the blame where blame is due, out there.
Before we begin to blame our parents, however, remember that they too are a product of their parents, and so on and so on. Plus, it is not just parents who contribute to this destructive and harmful voice. Teachers, siblings, peers, and even society as a whole, all play a role. Unfortunately, if not kept in check, this inner critic can infiltrate our romantic relationships, interfere with our parenting, and intrude in our work.
But there is good news. There are steps we can take to overcome the harmful inner critic.
- Pay attention to your thoughts.
You’re so used to hearing your own narration that it’s easy to become oblivious to the messages you’re sending yourself. Start paying close attention to your thoughts and you may discover that you call yourself names or talk yourself out of doing things that are hard. It’s estimated that you have around 60,000 thoughts per day. That’s 60,000 chances to either build yourself up or tear yourself down. Learning to recognize your thought patterns is key to understanding how your thinking affects your life.
- Change the channel.
While problem-solving is helpful, ruminating is destructive. When you keep replaying a mistake you made in your head over and over again or you can’t stop thinking about something bad that happened, you’ll drag yourself down. The best way to change the channel is by getting active. Find an activity that will temporarily distract you from the negative tapes playing in your head. Go for a walk, call a friend to talk about a different subject, or tackle a project you’ve been putting off. But refuse to sit and listen to your brain beat you up.
- Examine the evidence.
Your thoughts aren’t always true. In fact, they’re often exaggeratedly negative. It’s important to examine the evidence before you believe your thoughts. If you think, “I’m going to embarrass myself when I give that presentation,” pause for a minute. Take out a piece of paper and write down all the evidence that indicates you’re going to fail. Then, list all the evidence that you aren’t going to fail. Looking at the evidence on both sides can help you look at the situation a little more rationally and less emotionally. Reminding yourself that your thoughts aren’t 100 percent true can give you a boost in confidence.
- Replace exaggeratedly negative thoughts with realistic statements.
When you recognize that your negative thoughts aren’t completely true, try replacing those statements with something more realistic. If you think, “I’ll never get a promotion,” a good replacement statement might be, “If I work hard and I keep investing in myself, I may get promoted someday.” You don’t need to develop unrealistically positive statements; overconfidence can be almost as damaging as serious self-doubt. But a balanced, realistic outlook is key to becoming mentally stronger.
- Consider how bad it would be if your thoughts were true.
It’s tempting to envision a misstep turning into an utter catastrophe, but often the worst-case scenario isn’t as bad as we fear. If you predict you’re going to get rejected for a job, ask yourself how bad would that actually be? Rejection stings but it’s not the end of the world. Reminding yourself that you can handle tough times increases your confidence. It can also decrease much of the dread and worrisome thoughts that can stand in your way.
- Ask yourself what advice you’d give to a friend.It’s often easier to be more compassionate toward other people than to yourself. For example, while you might call yourself an idiot for making a mistake, it’s unlikely you’d say that to a loved one. When you’re struggling with tough times or doubting your ability to succeed, ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend who had this problem?” Then, offer yourself those kind, wise words.
- Balance self-improvement with self-acceptance.
There’s a difference between telling yourself that you’re not good enough and reminding yourself that there’s room for improvement. Accept your flaws for what they are right now while committing to improvement in the future. Although it sounds a bit counterintuitive, you can do both simultaneously: You might accept that you feel anxious about an upcoming presentation at work while also making a decision to improve your public speaking skills. Accept yourself for who you are right now while investing in becoming an even better version of yourself down the road. (These steps are taken from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201801/7-ways-overcome-toxic-self-criticism)
The investment is worth it because you are worth it!