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4 Steps to Break the Anxiety Cycle

4 Steps to Break the Anxiety Cycle


"Get a sofa bed." This unassuming project has been patiently biding its time in the murky depths of my Non-Urgent-Things-To-Do list. After having the girls, there's no extra room in our apartment to welcome the occasional guest.

In a classic two-birds-one-stone maneuver, I thought I would do a little online browsing for sofa beds (Yay! The satisfaction of progress!) while also procrastinating writing this blog post (Yay! The sweet sweet relief of avoidance!). Excellent. But then, in a paradoxical victory of sorts, looking at sofa bed videos brought me right back to writing this post.

More thrilling sofa bed updates in a moment. First, a little primer about fear vs. anxiety.

Fear vs. Anxiety

Fear is the emotional state that arises in response to an immediate perceived threat. It's basically nature's alarm to help you survive when your safety is threatened. Your body and brain change gears to give you the means to fight, flee, freeze, or take cover. To help you take protective action, your mind becomes more able to detect and focus on sources of danger (Barlow, 2002).

Anxiety is the emotional state that arises in response to an anticipated threat. You may feel apprehension, worry, and muscle tension. The experience of anxiety may be less intense compared to a state of acute fear, but it might be much longer lasting. This depends, in part, on what stories your mind is telling you (Forsyth and Eifert, 2007).

While fear is oriented towards the present moment ("The house is on FIRE!"), anxiety is focused on an imagined future (1) ("What if I make a mistake and the house catches on fire?!"). Used adaptively, anxiety can help motivate us to plan appropriately for the future and take action.

However, the creative human mind can also come up with brilliantly compelling stories about potential threats that are so distant or so beyond our realm of control that there’s nothing we can really do to take action right now. Like a deer in headlights, we can fixate on those disturbing stories and forget about any adaptive problem-solving. We can even get stuck in a maladaptive cycle of anxiety that feeds into itself without resolution.

The Anxiety Cycle: Mind-Body Looping

Clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach describes stuck anxiety as a cycle of mind-body looping (Brach, 2013). Let's say the mind focuses on the perception that something might go wrong (e.g., “What if I write this blog post and it's stupid and irrelevant?”). If we get tangled up and carried away by that threatening thought, it generates physical sensations in the body as well (e.g., a slight tension and quivering in my stomach; my heart beat quickens a bit and my breathing is slightly more shallow).

In turn, the mind picks up these physical signals. The body’s felt-sense of fear tricks the mind into confirming that the potential threats are true stories (“Of course there’s some real danger here! Why else would I feel like this?”). With the mind on high alert for threats, we detect and focus even more on anxious thoughts...and the cycle continues.


If the looping becomes habitual we might feel chronically anxious. Fixated on an imagined future we start missing out on anything enjoyable, useful, or interesting that’s available to us right here, right now in the present moment. So how do we break the cycle?

Experiential acceptance vs. experiential avoidance

There’s a kind of futon-type sofa bed I was checking out. If you want to open it up into a bed, you have to do something a little counter-intuitive. Just pulling outwards to try to pry it open won’t work. It just locks in place. You actually have to push the backrest inward, towards the seat first. This activates some kind of release mechanism and voila! The sofa opens up and you’ve just created some bonus space to rest.

Understandably, we want to avoid what we perceive as the aversive, unpleasant experience of anxiety. We want to NOT feel what we are feeling and we instinctively pull away from it. But this experiential avoidance doesn't actually get us away from the anxiety. If anything, it seems to lock the anxiety into place! So what if we try turning inward, towards the anxiety instead?

RAIN: A mindful 4-step practice

You can see for yourself what it’s like to turn towards your anxiety, lean in, and stay present using Dr. Tara Brach’s (2013) 4-step RAIN practice:

1) Recognize what is happening

Close your eyes and bring to mind something that arouses anxiety. To build confidence as you begin to practice these steps, start by choosing something that is only mildly or moderately anxiety provoking.

Become mindful of your anxious or worried thoughts and notice the different forms they take: planning, rehearsing, trying to figure something out, a voice or some sort of mental commentary or judgment, or some visual images. Once you've identified your worry thoughts, whisper "fear thinking."

2) Allow the experience to be there, just as it is

Instead of avoiding or struggling against your inner experience, experiment with just letting it be. You might even experiment with saying “yes” or “I consent” as if you are giving yourself permission to fully experience and mindfully explore whatever is there.

3) Investigate with interest and care

Drop into your body, bringing your awareness below the neck with curiosity, openness, and kindness. Where does the worry and anxiety show up in your body right now? Bring your awareness to wherever you feel the anxiety most strongly in your body and notice the physical sensations: any pressure, tightness, ache, heat, movement, or other sensations?

It takes a lot of courage and willingness to stay present with unpleasant sensations. You can support yourself through this exploration with slow, gentle breaths.

4- Nurture with self-compassion

What does the anxious part of yourself most need to hear to feel comforted at this time? You can explore the ways you might deliver a message of kindness and care to the vulnerable part of you. Using a gentle tone of voice, you might offer some words like “it’s ok, I’m with you” or “that’s then and this is now”. You can also offer a caring physical gesture of some sort, like softly placing your hand on your heart.

After completing the four RAIN steps, use your senses to ground yourself in the here and now. Feel your feet on the floor or feel any other points of contact where your body is physically supported in this moment. See the light, shapes, and colours around you. Hear the sounds and let them flow through you. Take some time to notice what has changed in your body and your mind.

Each time you practice these steps, you’ll be further de-conditioning the tendency to get stuck in a useless anxiety cycle. Unlike the “false refuge” of distraction or rumination, we can lean in and open up a “true refuge” (Brach, 2013)—an inner space that’s always available to us… even in the midst of suffering and discomfort. Even when special guests like anxiety show up.

Maryann Joseph is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Brach, T. (2013). True refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart. New York: Bantam Books.

T. Steimer (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 4(3), 231-249.


1) Although this is an important conceptual difference, there may be a great deal of overlap in the body’s physical response: the basic fear-based brain and behavioural mechanisms that evolved to protect us from imminent danger may be re-used to some extent for the fancier task of protecting us from distant or virtual threats (Steimer, 2002).

Back to the Present! One Time-Travelling Hack To Be Here Now

Back to the Present! One Time-Travelling Hack To Be Here Now


Do you remember the DeLorean travelling through time in the Back To The Future movies? This post is going to be just like that...only different.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about how my experience as a mom to newborn twins was, um, how shall I put this, an effective new form of psychological torture not quite how I had pictured it was going to be. My mind slipped into functional zombie mode and I felt like I was flipping past chapters of my own life.

Time rushed by but I was tangled up too far away to notice all the casual magic unfolding around me. I needed to find my way back to the present. Back to the NOW.

Contact with the present moment

Contact with the present moment is a core aspect of mindfulness and a key skill we practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It's about being fully here now, even for a moment. It's being consciously and flexibly aware of our inner and outer world, as opposed to the very common state of being tuned-out of our experience or caught inside certain thoughts and feelings.

You can check out my last post about contacting the present moment to see if you might benefit from this skill. It also covers three basic steps to get you started, plus a brief practical exercise that you can do anywhere, anytime to reconnect with the moment using your physical senses. That exercise is essentially a “bottom-up” approach; we start with all the little sensory building blocks of experience to build up to a more richly detailed picture of here-now.

Presently, I'd like to share a complementary “top-down” approach; we start with whatever is precious to you in the big picture of your life to come into closer contact with little elements of the current moment that may otherwise be flying under the radar.

To The DeLorean!!!

To practice this “top-down” way of contacting the present moment, we can start by packing for a little time-travelling exercise. We can travel light. Start with your intention to make better contact with the present moment and just add the following 3 concepts to your inner carry-on bag:

1) Hedonia and Eudaimonia

Think of hedonia and eudaimonia as two separate but interconnected paths to well-being. A hedonic orientation involves seeking happiness, positive feelings, life satisfaction, and reduced negative feelings. On the other hand, a eudaimonic orientation includes seeking meaning, authenticity, excellence, and personal growth (Huta & Waterman, 2013).

Basically, there are many difficult moments in which you might not feel happy, but in which you might find some sense of personal meaning (Frankl, 1963). In ACT we explore this by not getting too hung up on a perpetual search for pleasant feelings (nor a constant mission to avoid unpleasant feelings), asking instead, “Who and what is important to you?”

2) Acceptance

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.”
--Eckhart Tolle

For me, this quote captures something essential to mindfulness and the capacity to be present in the here and now.

In ACT, acceptance is the idea that instead of playing tug-of-war with challenging elements of your experience, you can choose to “drop the struggle”. The key idea here is to accept and then act so that you work with the moment and not against it.

3) Shift Perspectives on the Present Moment

One way to shift perspectives on a situation is to wonder what it looks like from a different point of view, taking on the vantage point of a different person, a different place, or a different time.

ACT encourages us to shift perspectives as a means of increasing psychological flexibility (i.e., having awareness and responses that are more adapted to a given situation and more in line with your values). Compassion-focused therapy (CFT; Gilbert, 2010) encourages shifts in perspective as a means of increasing self-compassion (relating to yourself with kindness and non-judgment).

That's why this next video blows my mind. It's an incredibly poignant perspective shift:

“We take it for granted that life moves forward. But you move as a rower moves, facing backwards—you can see where you've been, but not where you're going. And your boat is steered by a younger version of you. It's hard not to wonder what life would be like facing the other way…” – John Koenig, Avenoir, Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

Koenig's brilliant video points out that we naturally look at where we are in relation to where we have previously been. He offers a seismic shift in perspective by wondering what the present moment would look like to your older future self, with all of your additional life experience already within you.


Well. The DeLorean is fully charged now and you have all you need to hit 88 miles an hour. So let's put it together and experiment, shall we? Drawn from ACT and CFT, may I present:

The Back-to-the-Present Time Travel Hack!   

Imagine that one day, far far ahead in the future, there is a much older, much wiser, more compassionate Future You. Future You has lived your whole life and knows every page, every chapter, start to finish. Intriguingly, Future You can time travel (!) and specifically chooses to come back to this very moment, right here, right now.

What challenging elements of your current experience can Future You see with wise, compassionate understanding? (e.g., difficult thoughts/feelings/sensations?) 

What important sensory elements of the present moment does Future You want to experience one last time? (e.g., what is meaningful or precious to you in this moment and how do you experience that with your senses?)     

What does Future You want to do right here, right now? (e.g.,Is there something Future You wanted to tell you? Perhaps there is something Future You wanted to do again? Perhaps there is something Future You needed to go back and do differently?)

I challenge you to give it a whirl yourself right now or anytime you want to practice contacting the present moment, especially in a moment that is a bit challenging for you on some level. Notice what might shift in terms of your sensory, mental, and emotional focus of attention.*

I was trying not to let this post get too long, so consider that the end of the official post!

You've got the goods now. But of course you're welcome to read on if you'd like an example of how it all played out in my case:

Original Experience of The Moment: Scene 1 Take 1

It's the middle of the night and I feel like I've been awake for eons. I'm standing in a dark room just big enough for two cribs, trying to block out the grating sonic loop of two babies bawling in tandem. The twins are a few months old and it's a particularly difficult night.

It goes like this: I pick up baby 1, eventually soothe her, put her down, pick up baby 2, eventually soothe her, put her down; meanwhile baby 1 is crying again, and rinse, repeat, on and on. I feel hopelessly inadequate to mother these two at the same time and I just want all the crying to stop.

Sensory focus of attention: 

  • hearing crying
  • seeing darkness
  • feeling physical exhaustion

Mental/emotional focus of attention: 

  • trying to block out the crying and wanting it to stop
  • thinking I will be stuck here for ever
  • thinking I'm failing them during a critical developmental period
  • thinking I'm not meeting the needs of either baby and it will screw them up for life
  • feeling hopeless and inadequate
  • feeling the heartbreak and guilt of not being able to give each of them my undivided time and attention in their time of distress

Back to the Present! Scene 1 Take 2

Then I imagined Future Me choosing (whaaaat?!) to come back to this very moment and everything started to shift. Wise Old Future Me saw my exhaustion and feelings of inadequacy with compassionate, understanding eyes. Then she just went straight to drinking in what she knew to be the ephemeral beauty of the situation: me standing upright in my relatively young, strong body, holding the girls in their temporarily tiny form.

Sensory focus of attention via Future Me:

  • the soft warmth of baby skin, especially the top of their heads
  • the tiny dimensions of their small delicate bodies, especially their hands
  • a decrease in my muscle tension
  • noticing the vitality still coursing through my middle-aged body and holding me upright
  • special shout out to the strength in my arms and legs

Mental/emotional focus of attention via Future Me: 

  • feeling a strong sense of surprise and wonder at how tiny the babies are (after all, I was used to seeing them as the biggest they have ever been relative to The Past)
  • feeling waves of gratitude for another moment with my babies
  • thinking the cries no longer sound so loud and so laced with reproaches--rather they have a certain nostalgic sweetness somehow

Soaking up all the parts of the present experience from Future Me's point of view, my harsh judgments dropped away. Instead of wasting my time struggling against feelings of inadequacy or trying to block out the crying, I instinctively shimmied a little closer to what is truly precious to me.

It was the difference between pulling away from the discomfort of a challenging moment and the willingness to lean in and experience it.

From the outside not much looked different. The epic crying relay continued on. But on the inside, if only for a limited time, it made all the difference in the world. It was a radical gear-shift out of zombie auto-pilot and back into my own experience. Back to The Present!


(*Figurative DeLorean and flux capacitor included. Some psychological flexibility may ensue. See your own experience for details.)

Maryann Joseph is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The mindfulness and acceptance workbook for anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is a great ACT self-help workbook and there are others in the series, e.g., for depression.]

Frankl, V. E. (1963). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Washington Square Press. [A poignant classic, as relevant today as ever.]

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive features. New York: Routledge. [A richly theoretical clinician's guide to CFT.]

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple: An easy to read primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. [This is an excellent, accessible resource for any clinician.]

Huta, V. (2015) The complementary roles of eudaimonia and hedonia and how they can be pursued in practice, in Positive psychology in practice: Promoting human flourishing in work, health, education, and everyday life, Second Edition (ed S. Joseph), Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. doi: 10.1002/9781118996874.ch10. [Conceptual, research-based aspects of well-being.]

Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Oakland, CA: Context Press. [Clear, concise, and wonderfully practical ACT resource for clinicians.]

The importance of setting boundaries

The importance of setting boundaries

Recently, boundary-setting has been coming up often in conversations, in and outside the office. I noticed that for many, “boundaries” as a concept seems to be ambiguous—yet it plays out in so many domains of life. If you’re asking yourself whether your own boundaries may need a check-up, here are some hints.

Do you ever feel like you invest more than your return in relationships with partners, family, friends, or even strangers? Perhaps you feel resentful, or that you are being taken advantage of. You might feel a little bit annoyed all the time, or you might feel outright mistreated! You worry about the disapproval from others if you were to choose to say no or do what’s right for you.

Perhaps you often feel compelled to “fix things” for those who are close to you (emotionally, or otherwise). Maybe you worry they won’t think you’re a good friend, partner, son, daughter, (etc) if you don’t do what they are asking from you. Maybe worse, you fear that setting a limit would lead to argument or confrontation. So you might say “yes” when you mean “no”—out of habit, or just to avoid unpleasant interactions. At work, or elsewhere, you go above and beyond to ensure that another person’s comforts, wants, and needs are satisfied in a situation (but at the expense of your own!). Although it may feel “unselfish”, you eventually come to feel anger and resentment towards others. In fact, despite your efforts to ensure the other person is happy, relationships may not be working so well. While most people occasionally struggle with boundary questions, if it sounds a little bit too familiar too often, it might help to give your boundaries some reflection.

So what are boundaries?

In the context of psychology, boundaries are a conceptual limit between you and the other person. Simply put, it’s about knowing where you end and others begin. Knowing what’s yours and what’s not. Acknowledging that every adult is responsible for themselves. Having a functional boundary (one that works) means taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, and NOT taking responsible for the actions and emotions of others. Of course, this plays out a little differently when you ARE actually responsible for someone else (like a dependent or a child).

According to personal space theory (Scott, 1993), we have boundaries, and can regulate how permeable they are—meaning what we let in and out—when it comes to the physical, mental and spiritual environment.

Maintaining boundaries is about being the gatekeeper of your life in order to keep yourself safe and well. Imagine you are a castle, with front door, moat, and drawbridge which you can lower open or raise shut at your will (Peck, 1997). If you keep your front door unlocked and drawbridge laid open all the time, anyone is free to walk in, do as they please, and stay as long as they like. On the other extreme, if you keep the door shut and locked, and the drawbridge up, you end up isolated, and miss out on connecting with others. Many go from one of these extremes to the other. However, we know that the healthiest type of boundary is one that is appropriately and purposefully open to some people, in some situations, some of the time, and closed to others, at other times (Scott, 1993). In our day-to-day, how well we communicate these boundaries can either protect or jeopardize relationships (Scott & Dumas, 1995). Think of times you did something you did not want to do because someone asked you and you felt obliged. The simmering anger that ensues could damage the relationship; if you let it boil over, you might say something passive aggressive or even fully lash out. 

How do I keep my boundaries in check?

The first step is to create time to get to know yourself, and practice feeling worthy. Often when we allow our boundaries to be crossed, we feel as though we are being generous. Perhaps because we feel (or have been taught) it’s the only way to ensure being a “good person” or the only way to confirm our worth or value. Practice feeling worthy. Not because of your achievements or generosity toward others, but because like every person—you are!  Show yourself you are worthy by being kind and compassionate toward yourself and taking good care of your emotional well-being (to start, see Andrea’s daily mental health boost tips on Instagram), Lisa’s blog posts about the critical vs compassionate voice here and here, or Miss psychlife’s tips on self-care here. It may feel as though a good relationship means you take care of others at your own expense, and you hope that in return, they will take care of you in the same way. This is what creates boundary chaos. Instead, respect and nurture yourself by taking care of you first. You may be asking yourself whether doing this is selfish—it is not. By meeting your own needs, you respect yourself and the other by taking responsibility for your own well-being. You preserve your integrity so that you can communicate your boundaries to others and maintain equal, respectful, and resentment-free relationships.

The second step is about defining your edges. In each situation, asking yourself what you are responsible for and what is outside your scope. If your partner wants you to do something, asking yourself, “would I like to invest in my relationship in this particular way”? If so, you can do it within your boundary. Then ask yourself, does doing this come at the expense of my well-being in a significant way? And will my resentment grow if I do it? If the answer is yes to either, there is a good chance this is outside the boundary. Give yourself the power to own the choices you make, and avoid doing anything that you will come to resent. Make choices that you feel are right for you—not because you feel like you have to, or fear the consequences, or think “that’s what it takes to be a good person”—but because you feel content with the choice regardless of the outcome. 

The third step is more concrete: Practice assertiveness! First noticing when you want to give in—to do something that would create resentment or come at the expense of your own well-being. Then, communicate your stance respectfully. You can apply this with family, at work, and even with strangers. For example, you might feel guilty because you don’t visit your family as often as they’d like you to. Make a personal choice regarding how often you would like to visit, and express your choice firmly. You are not responsible for how they feel about your choice. At work you might go above and beyond your job requirements at the expense of your own time with friends and family, which can lead you to burnout. Despite your fears (“what if I lose my job?”), you can start by setting limits on how often you work above and beyond (or choosing not to at all) and communicating these assertively (saying “I am not available to work on the weekend”).  To learn more about how to practice assertiveness, check out Lisa’s post here, or these online modules that take you through it in detail.

To summarize, when boundaries are blurry or loose, we do things we don’t want to do, often at the expense of our emotional and physical well-being. This leads to constant frustration within the self and can damage relationships with others. Being responsible for minding our own emotions and actions rather than those of others is essential to keeping our relationships (and ourselves!) healthy. Of course, boundaries are not always simple and can look a little different for everyone, so explore this with your therapist to learn about how it all plays out for you.

Danit Nitka received her PhD from the Clinical and Research Psychology program at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


Peck, M.S. (1997). The road less traveled and beyond: Spiritual growth in an age of anxiety. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Scott, A. (1993). A beginning theory of personal space boundaries. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 29(2), 12-20.

Scott, A., & Dumas, R. (1995). Personal space boundaries: Clinical applications in psychiatric nursing. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 31(3), 14-21.

Scott, A. (1998). Psychometric evaluation of the personal space boundary questionnaire. Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, 1(2), 46-53.

Bye-Bye Self-Critical Voice; Hello Caring and Helpful Voice! PART 2

Bye-Bye Self-Critical Voice; Hello Caring and Helpful Voice! PART 2

Hello again! This is Part 2 of my post on the self-critical voice. You can find Part 1 here, where you’ll find tips 1 – 3. In these posts I talk about why our self-critic is not helpful, and the difficult challenge of conquering our self-critical voice. My hope is that you’ll have many tools for your toolbox to assist you in overcoming that stubborn self-critic. Check out my tips below!

4. Develop a guiding voice that is effective and that will actually help you reach your goals.

I’m not recommending that conquer your self-critical voice just because I want you to be nicer to yourself, but I also want to help you be more effective in reaching your goals. We know that harsh criticism is not effective. How would you ideally talk to someone you’re genuinely trying to help, like a child in your care, someone you’re tutoring, or someone you’re coaching? We probably wouldn’t want to talk to them like we talk to ourselves (“You’re such a idiot”, etc.), and moreover we know that shaming doesn’t work. For example, a survey demonstrated that anti-obesity campaigns with “blaming” messages are perceived as less motivating than ones with more neutral messages or ones that don’t mention obesity or weight at all (1). 

Additionally, there is plenty of research that shows that we are more likely to achieve goals that are based on internal vs. external motivations (2, 3).  We are externally motivated when we do something to satisfy an external demand or obtain a reward, like when we do a job we dislike but we do it anyways because it pays well. Internal motivation is when we are motivated to do things because they are in line with our personal values, or simply because they’re inherently enjoyable. For example, we volunteer to pick up garbage in a local park because we care about the environment, or we spend an evening watching our favourite TV show because it’s pleasurable. When we do things based on our self-critical voice, on the other hand, it’s often to reduce guilt, anxiety, or fear, and to boost our self-esteem. So although it is internal to us, it is experienced as controlling, and not as autonomous as when we’re doing something because it’s in line with our values or because we enjoy it. As my colleague Jodie says in her blog post about weight loss, to succeed at your goals, find your internal motivation: Ten Things I Tell My Clients about Weight Loss with Compassion and Hope. For more on motivation, check out my colleague Michelle’s blog post: You Can't Save The Damsel If She Loves Her Distress: Understanding Self-Motivation.


5. Develop an accurate assessment of yourself.

The workbook called, The Self-Esteem Companion: Simple Exercises to Help You Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal Strengths (4) has some excellent exercises for developing an accurate assessment of ourselves. In one exercise, the authors suggest that you list as many positive qualities about yourself as you can and 3 concrete examples for each of those positive qualities. This allows for what the authors refer to as “active integration” – transforming positive qualities from a bunch of words into specific memories. For example, let’s say you listed “a good friend” as one of your positive qualities. Three concrete examples might be: 1) That time I helped my friend Kate move when the people she hired bailed on her, 2) That time I stayed up until 3am talking with my friend on the phone after he got fired from his job, and 3) That time I organized a surprise birthday party for my friend Simone.

The authors also have a section on “Getting Rid of the Kickers”; in other words, getting rid of those extreme and harsh judgments such as, “You’re such a loser” and “You’re so lazy.” After you identify your kickers, try challenging these thoughts and coming up with a more balanced and accurate self-assessment. Ask yourself, what is my evidence that this thought is true? What would it take for me to call someone else a loser? What qualities would they need to have and do I have those qualities? Am I overly focusing on the negative? Am I generalizing from one negative trait to my whole self, or from one negative experience to my whole life? An excellent outline and guide for identifying our unhelpful thoughts can be found here: Unhelpful Thinking Styles, and for challenging our thoughts can be found here: Realistic Thinking.

6. Develop Self-Compassion

When we practice self-compassion, we take on an attitude of kindness and nonjudgmental understanding towards ourselves and our perceived flaws and failures, similar to the sort of attitude we might have towards a close friend or family member who is experiencing difficulties (5). Additionally, self-compassion promotes feelings of interconnectedness through the recognition that suffering is a common human experience (5). It’s also important to note that although self-esteem and self-compassion overlap, self-esteem constitutes evaluation of the self (How good am I?) and comparisons to others (Am I better than them?), whereas self-compassion is non-evaluative and promotes interconnectedness (5). In this way, self-compassion is a more sustainable and healthy form of self-worth than self-esteem, which tends to be based on being better than others. For some great tips on dealing with that unhelpful tendency we have to compare ourselves to others, check out my colleague Simcha’s blog post, It’s All Relative: What Are Social Comparisons And How Do They Affect Us?

Many of us have trouble with the idea of self-compassion because it feels like self-pity. However, an important part of self-compassion is mindfully observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment, seeing them for what they are – experiences that aren’t necessarily rooted in truth and that we don’t necessarily have to act on (6). In this way, self-compassion prevents us from indulging negative thoughts and feelings that are not helpful and perhaps not based in facts.

So how can we increase self-compassion? By reducing our self-critical voice and countering it with a more kind, helpful voice, we’ll be on our way to increasing self-compassion. Mindfulness is another important aspect of self-compassion. As I mentioned above, mindfulness let’s us hold our thoughts and feeling with non-judgemental awareness, allowing us to see them for what they are. For more on mindfulness, check out my colleague Natsumi’s post, Mindfulness: An Introductory Guide

Self-compassion meditations are also a great way to practice self-compassion, as they help us foster the emotional experience of self-compassion. You can give one a try here. For more on self-compassion, Kristen Neff, a psychology professor and researcher, and leading expert in self-compassion, has a ton of resources on her website, and my colleague Andrea wrote a touching and helpful blog post called “Why Self-Compassion”.

7. Mindset about Mistakes

Self-criticism often comes about from mistakes or perceived failures. For example, we get a question wrong on a test or arrive late for a meeting, and deep shame may set in along with some harsh diatribe like, “What is wrong with you? You should know better.” The thing is, mistakes are a part of life and learning and growing. We ALL make mistakes, and we will continue to make mistakes. Instead of going down that deep shame spiral, explore your mistakes with curiosity, be mindful of your thoughts and feelings, and learn from the mistakes. We know that people who tend to succeed, who do well in school or at their jobs, aren’t those with the highest IQ, but those with grit and perseverance (7), and those with a “growth” mindset (8). People with a growth mindset see intelligence as something that can be developed through their effort, dedication, and learning. On the other hand, people with a “fixed” mindset believe that they can’t really change their intelligence, so a mistake feels very threatening, and they are more concerned with proving they’re smart or hiding that they’re not. For more on grit and growth mindset check out these awesome TED talks, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, and The Power of Believing that You Can Improve; and my colleague Andrea’s blog post, Helping Versus Hovering Part 2: How Can We Avoid Over Parenting?


I hope reading this post and trying out some of these tips has given you some ideas on how to conquer your self-critic. If it seems impossible, don’t fret! Like most things, it takes a lot of practice. And in any case, trying to conquer your self-critic and having difficulty doing so is a good opportunity to be understanding and patient with yourselves. Or, perhaps remind yourself of this quote from Tracee Ellis Ross, “I am learning every day to allow the space between where I am and where I want to be to inspire me and not terrify me.”

Thanks for checking out this post, and if you liked it you can check out more here.

Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


1) Puhl, R., Peterson, J. L., & Luedicke, J. (2013). Fighting obesity or obese persons? Public perceptions of obesity-related health messages. International Journal of Obesity, 37(6), 774-782.

2) Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

3) Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

4) McKay, M., Fanning, P., Honeychurch, C., & Sutker, C. (2005). The Self-Esteem Companion: Simple Exercises to Help You Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal Strengths. New Harbinger Publications.

5) Neff, K. D. (2003a).  Development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity, 2, 223-250.

6) Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion. HarperCollins.

7) Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(6), 1087.

8) Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(1), 33.

Bye-Bye Self-Critical Voice; Hello Caring and Helpful Voice!

Bye-Bye Self-Critical Voice; Hello Caring and Helpful Voice!

I notice self-criticism the most when it comes from people close to me. A friend or colleague may off-handedly say, “I suck” or “I look terrible today”. When I hear this I have the impression that there’s an invisible bully beside them saying mean things to them, and all I want is to punch that bully in the face, and say “Don’t be mean to my friend!” Yet, I know I am often doing the same thing to myself. But it’s different when it comes to ourselves, right? This criticism is somehow justified when directed at our own self, because we believe we deserve it and it’s the right thing to do. In this blog post, I want to explore why that may not be true, and how to replace our self-critical voice with the voice of a helpful, caring friend, with the hopes that this “friend” will be with you for the rest of your life!

First, a bit about where our self-critic comes from. Maybe we learned it from people around us while we were growing up. Maybe mom often looked in the mirror and said things like, “Boy, do I ever look fat today!”, and without even realizing it we developed similar habits, assuming that this is a normal way to talk to ourselves. Or, maybe a parent, sibling, caregiver, or coach often spoke down to us or criticized us: “Maybe you’d get better grades if you weren’t so lazy.”, “There are only winners or losers.”, “Maybe you’d have an easier time at school if you lost a few pounds.” Although sometimes well intentioned, these messages can imply that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re fundamentally bad, that our worth is conditional on achieving things, etc. Unfortunately, we often end up internalizing these messages, making them our own and assuming them to be true.

It’s also very possible that we learned talk to ourselves in an overly critical way via messages we got from various societal, cultural, or spiritual norms and traditions. In a podcast episode on the Lively Show, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how in many traditions, suffering is a badge of honour and how “self-hatred is the only socially acceptable way that you’re allowed to think about yourself all the time.” Similarly, Maria Popova of Brainpickings talks about “our culture’s epidemic of self-criticism” in her blog post, The Difficult Art of Self-Compassion. We can all probably think of cultural and religious traditions that have encouraged us to evaluate of our worth and ourselves harshly. Our self-critical voice likely arose from a combination of these sources – family, friends, societal messages, etc. So what can we do about it? Check out my tips below! In this post I will discuss getting to know your self-critical voice and why it exists, and in Part 2 I’ll talk more about how to conquer that critic and develop a healthy alternative.

1. Get to know your self-critical voice.

First, knowledge is power. You may think you know your self-critical voice, but I would bet you probably aren’t fully aware of how often it’s popping up in your mind, and the effect it’s having on your goals and self-worth. Your self-critical voice may come in short phrases (“Stupid!”), long rants, or even mental images. Challenge yourself to spend one day writing down all your self-critical thoughts or images. Take a mindful approach and notice and describe these thoughts without judgment. This will be difficult, as your self-critical voice is very compelling and often seems to be reciting obvious facts. You must therefore be the best detective you can be. You might even put a little reminder/alarm in your phone so it beeps or buzzes every few hours, reminding you to check in and take note of your self-critical voice.

Make sure to write down your self-critical thoughts. Writing them down helps you clarify them, helps you really get in touch with how illogical they are, and holds you accountable to them. SO GET OUT THAT NOTEBOOK!

Once you’ve collected some data, pour yourself a soothing beverage, and perhaps with the support of a good friend (or a psychologist!), do some digging and analyzing. What subjects, themes, and patterns do you notice? Does your self-critical voice have some favourite topics? Maybe it’s body image, your abilities as a parent, how you compare to your friends, or your skills at work or school? Knowing the themes will allow you to know your triggers and most effectively target the areas needed.

2. Get to know why your critic is hanging around.

Chances are, your self-critic is trying to help you and protect you. By understanding its function, you’ll be able to develop another voice or tool that also serves that function, but in a more healthy way.

Some possible motivations for your self-critic, taken directly from, The Self-Esteem Companion: Simple Exercises to Help You Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal Strengths (McKay, Fanning, Honeychurch, & Sutker, 2005, p. 34) include:

  • My critic tries to enforce the rules I grew up with because that’s all it knows.
  • My critic compares me to others because – once in a great while – I get to feel superior to somebody.
  • My critic is believable because it sounds like my parents, and I always believed them.
  • My critic expects perfection because if I could just do everything right, I might feel okay about myself.
  • My critic says I’m incompetent to keep me from trying – that way I won’t have to feel bad about failing.
  • My critic tells me people won’t like me so I won’t be so surprised and hurt when they reject me.
  • My critic predicts the worst so I’ll be prepared for it.
  • My critic tortures me so I can atone for my past mistakes.

And one that I added:

  • My critic wants me to be perfect so people won’t have any reason to dislike me and I won’t be alone.

3. Identify how it’s getting in the way.

Although as I mentioned above, your self-critic may be trying to help or protect you, I can almost guarantee it’s not actually conducive to the good life you want to live. Here are some ways your self-critical voice may be preventing you from being your best self (1):

  • My self-critical voice prevents me from achieving what is important to me.
  • My self-critical voice makes me overly defensive.
  • My self-critical voice makes me critical of others because I’m desperate to boost my self-esteem.
  • My self-critical voice puts me in a bad mood.
  • My self-critical voice causes me to feel really bad and I often turn to friends to make myself feel better, which puts a strain on our relationship.
  • My self-critical voice makes it difficult for me to be vulnerable, and so I avoid close relationships.
  • My self-critical voice makes me feel deep shame when I make even small mistakes, and as a result I spend more time beating myself up for the mistakes than actually learning from them.

By identifying how your self-critical voice is getting in the way for you, how it’s conflicting with your values and who you want to be, you’ll build up strength in your fight against it. It’s one thing for a friend or psychologist to tell you to stop being so hard on yourself, but it’s another thing to really get in touch with how it’s not working for you. Check out this inspiring article for more on this topic: How a Triathlon Helped America Ferrera Defy Her Inner Critic. As described in this article, Emmy award winner America Ferrera wasn’t able to get rid of her self-critical voice until she realized it was getting in the way of something she really wanted to do – running a triathlon.

Also, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we’re not doing anyone, including ourselves, any favours by being overly self-critical. You may have been taught that it’s the honourable thing to do, but it’s ineffective (more about its ineffectiveness in Part 2 of this blog post!) and you would likely be a nicer person in general if you were nicer to yourself. As clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach eloquently stated, “Once we have held ourselves with kindness, we can touch others in a vital and healing way.” 

I hope you’ve learned a bit about your self-critical voice by reading this post! Stay tuned for Part 2 of this journey for more tools and techniques on conquering your critic!

Lisa Linardatos is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


1) McKay, M., Fanning, P., Honeychurch, C., & Sutker, C. (2005). The Self-Esteem Companion: Simple Exercises to Help You Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal Strengths. New Harbinger Publications.