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Psychotherapy can help, here’s a story about how…

Psychotherapy can help, here’s a story about how…

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I am a psychologist. Psychologists are people who spend a significant amount of their life studying how people work and why they do what they do* (for me that started at age 19 and has continued for the past 20 years). We practice psychotherapy. Psychotherapy helps empower people to think differently, feel differently, and do things differently while at the same time helping them see that they are a worthy person just as they are. It’s good stuff.

Here’s a little story about psychotherapy, I hope you like it…It takes place on the planet Edo.

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I know of a planet called Edo. On this planet people are born in a machine that looks like a little space ship. You live in your own ship. You can see other people and interact with them but you cannot really see into each other’s ships. Your ship has a lot of buttons and if you push them you can go forward, backward, and stop. When you are little your parents teach you how to use your ship; they teach you basic things like flying, hovering, and ship maintenance. You can learn other skills by going to school, like how to communicate with other ships, how to quantify things, and a lot of other information about the world outside your ship.

You have dreams about flying to the moon in your ship, you see other people do it and think, “I can do it too”. As you grow up you realize there are still a lot of buttons that you don’t understand in your ship. Your parents try to help you but you realize that they are limited too in their understanding of their ship and so their help only goes so far. Sometimes you feel overwhelmed by your ship and using it feels hard. You push buttons and sometimes you go places you don’t want to go and that’s scary so you stop pushing some buttons. But what if you need those buttons to get to the moon?

As you become an adult you find yourself using the same set of buttons over and over again and it feels monotonous. You start to think maybe your ship is no good, or not as good as others. Sometimes, you wish you had a different ship. You can’t see inside anybody else’s ship so you feel like you’re the only one that feels this way.

You find out about this person who studies how to help people understand and use their ships better. She helps people when they feel stuck. She’s called a psychologist**. She spent a long time studying people’s ships, getting as close an inside glimpse as possible, and she thinks that she can help you understand some of those buttons better and create new sequences and move different places.

You’re scared, what if it doesn’t work? What if I go somewhere I don’t want to go? What if I find out that this ship cannot in fact get to the moon?

She seems to understand your fears, she says that you’ll take it one step at a time and asks you where you would like to go with your ship. You tell her and she seems to understand. She says she’d like to try to help you get there and that she’ll need you to tell her what it’s like in your ship for her to be able to help you. You are scared again, because you don’t really talk about what’s inside your ship. She asks about the stuff that feels like it’s not working. You tell her about the buttons that you’ve pushed that have taken you to bad places, the buttons that seem like they should work but that do not, the ones that you’ve only looked at but never even tried, again she seems to understand. She asks you about the stuff that is working and you’re kind of caught off guard because you never really think about what is working. She says she thinks you’ll start by looking at a sequence you’ve been using and change it up just a bit to see where that takes you. You think this is a pretty small step but it’s actually hard to do and so she helps you through it and once you do it you feel better, more confident, more empowered.

She is really interested in your ship and asks you tons of questions. She helps you decide what sequences of buttons you want to try pushing more and which ones you want to push less or not at all. She is patient when you find it hard to stop pushing a button and never judges you. She sits beside you when you push a new sequence and reassures you that it’s normal to fall, “everybody falls,” she says.

She let’s you be angry when buttons feel like they’re stuck and you wish you had another ship, and then gently brings you back to your ship and what you can do in it. You start to move to places you have not gone before. At first you feel like it’s all because of her, but the more steps you make the more you realize it’s you. You start to feel comfortable in your ship, to appreciate your ship, and to take care of your ship and your ship works pretty well. You hit bumps, but you know how to get up when you fall.

You say goodbye to your psychologist. Maybe you’ll come back to see her if you hit a very big bump or want to make a very big leap, but then you’ll be off again, you and your ship, exploring the world together. You’re not sure you really want to go to the moon anymore, but if one day you do you’re pretty sure you will figure out how to get there.


Jodie Richardson 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.


For more reading on psychotherapy check out these blog posts:

CBT: WHAT THE &^%#O IS THAT?!

DIALECTICAL BEHAVIOUR THERAPY: LOOKING FOR THE PLAID

THE SKINNY ON ACT

5 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW TO MAKE THERAPY WORK FOR YOU

A few references:

Hofmann, S.G., Asnaani, A., Vonk, I.J.J., Sawyer, A.T., and Fang, A. (2012). The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses. Cognitive Therapy Research, 36(5), 427-440.

Chambless, D. L., & Ollendick, T. H. (2001). Empirically supported psychological interventions: Controversies and evidence. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 685-716.

Tsai, K, C. (2012). Play, Imagination, and Creativity: A Brief Literature Review. Journal of Education and Learning, 1(2), 15-20.

Notes:

* In Québec the current requirement for a psychologist is to have a PhD in psychology. You can read more here.

** We’re using “she” only for purposes of coherency in this story, but please be advised that good psychologists come in every gender.

Special acknowledgement to Dr. Natsumi Sawada for inspiring this story with her creative ideas and for brainstorming the content with me.

Michael Phelps: Breaking records, smashing stereotypes

Michael Phelps: Breaking records, smashing stereotypes

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Have you ever heard someone suggest that ‘Depressed people are lazy, and they just need to toughen up’? Not only can such statements be extremely hurtful, but evidence flies in the face of such thinking.

Case in point: Olympic athlete Michael Phelps’s battle with depressive symptoms and suicidality. One thing that makes his story so compelling is that he is a record-breaking gold medalist whose training undoubtedly requires tremendous focus and dedication, and who most people would certainly not consider to be ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’.

In recent years, he has opened up about his experiences (1, 2). Let’s take a look at what he has shared, and how this might relate to mental health more broadly:

1. He cited social support as an important factor which helped him realize that suicide was not a good solution.  My clinical experience has shown me that people with depression often tend to isolate themselves. Low mood seems to say ‘just stay in bed, cocoon yourself under the warm covers, things will seem quieter and safer there, and you won’t have to struggle to expend energy interacting with people or doing activities.’  Sometimes people feel like they would be burdening others with their problems, or that others won’t understand what they are going through. But the reality is that isolating ourselves from the people who truly care about us can contribute to further worsening our mood, resulting in a vicious cycle where low mood makes us want to isolate ourselves, which in turn can contribute to further lowering of our mood. And ironically, sometimes the periods when our mood is lowest and our inclination to confide or socialize is plummeting can actually be among the most important times to do the opposite and reach out.

2. He reported having been critical or disappointed with himself when he did not beat a certain world record. This suggests that he may have had a focus on outcome goals, where the motivation is tied to the result (e.g. winning a competition), as opposed to process goals where the focus is on the steps involved (e.g. hard work, love of learning) (3). This may have left him feeling like a failure when he did not achieve his desired outcome. Indeed, some research has found that process goals can have certain advantages, including more enjoyment (4). I’ve often heard clients say things like ‘I’ll be happy when I achieve x goal / when I hit x milestone / when x is over’, but as clinical sports psychologist Kristen Keim noted, it is important to take pleasure in the process and in the moment (5).

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3. He reported that his sense of self-worth declined after he retired from swimming. Sports psychologist Dr. Goldman noted that equating identity with sport can lead some athletes to lose their sense of self (5). It can be very risky to put all of your eggs in one basket by linking your sense of self-worth to any one area of life (be it academic performance, romantic relationships, or physical appearance) because of the negative ramifications for mood and/or self-esteem when we don’t perform as well as we would have liked in that area, or when our involvement in that area diminishes. As such, some therapies encourage clients to develop and value multiple domains of life (6).

4. He noted that he had not reflected on his accomplishments along the way. Perhaps it is surprising that someone who has won so many gold medals during his career would not have already reflected on his successes. But many of us can relate to being focused on getting things done; it can feel like we are running on a treadmill that is going so fast that we struggle to keep up and to catch our breath, making it a real challenge to focus on the present moment and to practice mindfulness. See my colleague Natsumi’s blogpost to learn more about mindful awareness and how you can begin to incorporate it (7).

5. He was initially reluctant to get help, and anxious about the idea of change. Some people think – if you’re not doing well, you should jump at the chance to feel better, right? In reality, things often aren’t that simple. In many ways, we are creatures of habit, and we often find comfort in familiarity, even if that familiarity isn’t ideal. The idea of some unknown change can feel risky or scary, and people may wonder if they are capable of change, if that change will be sustainable, or if they will be fundamentally different people when their depressive symptoms have improved. These are all valid questions; make sure to raise them with your therapist if they are of concern to you.

6. Having benefitted from treatment, he went on to raise awareness and develop a foundation aimed at promoting stress management for youth. Although not everyone will have their own foundation, some people are eventually able to make meaning or see the silver lining in their experience, for instance, by noting that their own struggles have improved their ability to empathize with others and to demonstrate self-compassion.

Bottom line: Struggling with depression does not make someone weak or lazy. And the wide variety of people coming forward about their own experiences demonstrates that very accomplished, hard-working and motivated individuals can struggle with mental health problems. Michael Phelps’s experience illustrates this point well, as well as the importance of factors like social support, motivation, self-worth, and mindfulness in mental health.


Simcha Samuel 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.


References

  1. http://www.cnn.com/2018/01/19/health/michael-phelps-depression/index.html
  2. https://www.cnn.com/2017/07/03/sport/olympics-michael-phelps-swimming-mental-health/index.html
  3. Qu, Y.., Pomerantz, E. M., & Deng, C. (2016). Mothers’ goals for adolescents in the United States and China: Content and transmission, J Res Adolesc., 26, 126-141.
  4. Wilson, K. & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 89-100.
  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/08/post-olympic-depression/496244/
  6. Fairburn, C. G. (2008). Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 
  7. https://connectepsychology.com/blog/2016/1/11/3-simple-mindfulness-practices-for-coping-with-difficult-experiences-and-emotions-in-day-to-day-life

 Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head

Moving through emotional pain towards what's most important: One of of my favorite strategies for staying balanced and getting out of my head


Guest post from Dr. Natsumi Sawada, Registered Psychologist (originally published here).

Dr. Natsumi Sawada is a psychologist in private practice in Vancouver, B.C. Natsumi is passionate about using psychology to help people live meaningful, peaceful, connected, and joyful lives. For more of Natsumi's transformative tips check out her blogFacebook or Instagram


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A central feature of one of my favorite therapies, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (aka ACT) is the idea that identifying our “values” and moving towards them even when we are experiencing emotional pain is crucial for psychological health and wellbeing.  

What are values? They are the things in life that are most important to us. They are what we want our lives to be about. They are different from goals in that they are not things that we can achieve or complete and they are not future destinations. They are the the things that are most important to us in life and in the now. Examples might be: Helping, creativity, our relationship, emotional closeness, caring for others, kindness, independence. One way to tap into your values is to ask, “Who or what is most important to me?” I will write more on identifying values in an upcoming blog post.  

So why move towards values even when we feel terrible? 

Well, ACT proposes that pain is an inevitable part of being human (or sea slug for that matter). To experience physical and psychological pain in the form of difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations is to be human. It is not pathological, abnormal, or something to be changed. Our lives cannot be separated from pain. We inevitably experience loss and disappointment; feel sadness, anger, fear, guilt, and shame; experience self doubt and self judgment. We don’t often recognize that everybody suffers especially in the Instagram era when all we see is everybody else’s glowing faces and smiles on our screens while we struggle through the slop. But the idea that everyone is happy is bogus. The truth is, every person feels emotional pain and will feel pain throughout their life. Values are important because moving towards them orients us and give life meaning (and all the positive things that come with it). If we want to create meaning in our lives we cannot wait for the skies to clear because being human can at times be a little like living in Vancouver in November.  

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This sounds grim but it’s actually great news because to be psychologically healthy we need to experience positive AND painful emotions. For one thing, it’s natural to feel painful emotions. Imagine you never felt sad or afraid. I don’t think I need to explain why that would problematic. Painful emotions and thoughts serve important protective functions. We need to experience fear, sadness, and guilt to function in the world and to be human (more on this later). Some people argue we need to embrace this vulnerability that we all share, to connect with and be of service to others. Some research even suggests experiencing too much positive emotion is bad for our health and well being. It can cause us to engage in more risky behavior, impede our performance, and hinder our ability to empathize and take others’ perspectives (something that is crucial for good relationships). Research also suggests pursuing happiness can do more harm than good because the more people pursue happiness the less they seem to experience it. See this article for more. So forget the “don’t worry be happy" stuff. Ideally we have a little of both.  

However understandably, humans don't like to experience pain (and don’t even like to experience the possibility of future pain) so often when we experience it we struggle against it like a fish on a hook and line. We think about it, we worry about it, we dread it, we anticipate it, we question it, we obsess about it, we try to mentally problem solve our way out of it. A large part of the war we fight against our painful mental experiences (such as sadness, anxiety, anger, worries, doubts, obsessions, rumination) often takes place in the form of a why question: Why can't I be happier? Why me? Why am I so weird? Why am I messed up (or insert another insult of your choice here)? Why does life have to be this way? Why is everybody such a [bleep]?  

According to ACT, while this is a totally understandable response to pain, this mental war is problematic because whether you experience a little psychological pain or what seems like a lot, the struggle against it makes things so much worse; It creates pain 2.0 otherwise known as suffering. This is similar to an idea found in Buddhist philosophy, illustrated by the story of the two arrows:  

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“…When touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows…”   

The idea here is that when we experience pain (it could be physical pain as described here or emotional), we often react to it by fighting against it. We feel anxious and we get mad at ourselves for feeling this way, we feel sad and we feel ashamed, we feel depressed and we ruminate on the question “what is wrong with me?” and then ruminate on the answer, “you are deficient.” This causes us to, in effect, shoot ourselves with a second arrow: We add suffering to pain.  

One goal of ACT is to teach us how to reduce this suffering by learning to let go of the automatic habit of shooting the second arrow when we experience pain and instead move towards our values. Rather than getting caught up in the net of pain and suffering, we engage with and move towards what's important to us even when we feel pain. The idea is that we can experience painful mental events such as sadness or anxiety or the thoughts, “I can’t do it” or “I don’t want to” or “I’m a failure”  AND we can go on bike rides, work in the garden, do our work, paint a picture, act in a loving way, meet a friend, and do other things that create meaning and value in our life. The experience of a painful mental event cannot stop us from doing these things. The idea in ACT is that we recognize these thoughts and feelings with mindfulness AND then we move towards what's important to us with pain in hand.  

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Does it sound hard? It can be! The experience of sadness for example can organize our whole being to want to lie in bed, cry, eat cheetos and ice cream, surf the internet mindlessly for hours, and ruminate about what went wrong. Does this mean this is our only option? No. As difficult as it might be we can mindfully recognize our emotions with kindness and then, with the same attitude of love and care, ask ourselves, “Does acting on my urges take me farther from or in the direction of who or what is most important to me?” We can then do our best to take a small step towards what is important. It is not always easy but with a lot of practice we can learn how to do this. We can learn how to respond more flexibly to emotional pain instead of always going with the knee jerk reaction of resisting it, hiding from it, smothering it, and turning it into suffering. Some of the mental skills that can help us learn to do this are mindfulness, self compassion, and distress tolerance. I will talk more about these skills in future blog posts.    

I’m writing this post because I find this idea of moving towards values with pain particularly valuable and I use it a lot in my own life. When I feel despair, sadness, or anxiety, for sometimes what seems to be no reason at all, one of the most helpful things I've learned to do is to mindfully take note of the emotion and accompanying urges that arise in me, remind myself of my values, and encourage myself to take one tiny step in the direction of my values.  

For example, if I feel despair I might notice the urge to listen to sad music, lie in bed and watch Netflix, or ruminate about the things that are not going well for me and what I’ve done wrong. However, while understandable, these behaviors are designed to numb or escape pain and take me further from my values of learning and teaching, caring for others, developing my skills as a psychologist, being an engaged and loving partner, and creative expression. So, I do my best to notice these emotions and urges with kindness, acknowledge how painful they are, and then if all goes according to plan, I take a tiny step in the direction of my values. I repeat TINY. This is crucial because when we feel anxious or down even “small” steps can seem overwhelming. My tiny step might be washing the dishes in the sink, reading a page of a book, going for a walk around the block, or send a half dozen friends a cat meme (someone usually responds). Although it’s important to note that the point of moving towards values is not to get rid of pain, I sometimes find that after I have made a move towards my values, my difficult emotions loom less large or sometimes even pass. And, at the very least I’m sad but at least I’m sad AND I went for a walk and took a step towards health.  

If you want, try this out for yourself. Write down a few of your values and the next time you find yourself caught up in painful thoughts or emotions, see if you might remind yourself of some of your values and ask yourself the question, “Does acting on these mental experiences or thoughts take me closer to or farther away from what is most important to me?” If the answer is farther you might ask, “What tiny step might I take towards my values?” If this seems really difficult get in touch with a counsellor or psychologist for help. 

It's important to note that what feels tiny to me might feel microscopic to you or it might feel huge. Take a step that feels tiny to you. It might be doing five jumping jacks or washing three dishes or it might be reorganizing your house or running a marathon.  Meet yourself where you are at. The main point is to take a tiny step towards your values, notice that you did it, and see what happens next and repeat. Let me know what happens.  

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD? START BY CONNECTING TO YOU: PART 2

This post is a continuation of my last post, which can be summed up nicely by this quote my colleague Andrea recently posted on Instagram:

“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.”

In that post I asked you to get in touch with all of the reasons WHY you want to keep your cup full. These are your WHYs for taking care of you: the values and people you want to nourish in your life. If you haven’t read it, it’s short, please take a moment to do so: Want to Change the World? Start by Connecting to You.

In this post I’d like to talk about WHAT self-care is for you? I think a common misconception is that self-care is all about tea and massages. These are great ways to recharge if they work for you! But personally I find going for a run or sitting around a dinner table with my friends just as nourishing as going to the spa. Last post I also suggested that you should not start with what other people tell you you should do to take care of yourself or what your inner bully tells you your “lazy butt” should do to take care of you. I think the most nourishing self-care moments are actually when we connect our actions with our values (our WHYs). So, let’s look back at those lists we created last time. Here’s my short list:

My WHYs

Who is important to me? (1)

  • My family

  • My friends

  • My colleagues

What is important to me? (1)

  • Growth

  • Hard work

  • Authenticity

  • Creativity

  • Connecting with people

  • Feeling part of something bigger than me

  • Taking care of my body

  • Being in nature

  • Freedom

  • Fun

I’ll try to give you an example of how you might try to connect your self-care actions with your WHYs in the area of health. Most of us know that exercise is an important piece of self-care, but for many of us it feels like a chore. I was in this boat for a long time. When I was a kid I played many sports, mostly just for fun, because my friends were doing them. But as I got older my friends did fewer team sports and by the age of 18 I was left sport-less. My husband is a professional athlete and when we met at the age of 20 I was inspired to get back into exercise. So, I tried to jump on the gym bandwagon. My husband spent his days at the gym, there must be something good about it right? And so I would go to the gym a few hours a week to work out and it was fine. But then slowly but surely the gym would creep down my priority list and ooops I would find myself months without going to the gym at all. Anyone recognize this pattern? And the pattern continued for years and years until near the end of my 20s when I decided I was tired of feeling bad about not going to the gym and gave up on exercise altogether. Phew what a relief! But then months later, feeling sluggish and unfit, I asked myself “is there another way?” Can I personalize this exercise thing so that I actually like it and it might stick? So I looked back and asked myself what I used to like about exercise? For many sports it was just the social aspect but there were no sports that all of my friends were doing anymore (and I’m not that good at making new friends) so that might not work. But then I realized the two sports I really loved, just for me, were horseback riding and cross-country skiing (neither of which is done in a gym, Aha!) So why did I like them? 1) Because they were both done outside, often in the forest (which connected me to nature), and 2) taking off for hours of trail riding or skiing totally disconnected me from “real life” and rejuvenated me (which gave me a sense of freedom). And so, with less time in the schedule as an adult I decided to try out something similar but more practical: running. I loved it and haven’t looked back since. What I learned is that if you turn exercise into something is meaningful to you, the motivation will come much easier.

Since then I have tried this with different aspects of my life. I’ve broken down self-care into 4 domains for myself: Health, Leisure, Work, and Relationships (1). And asked myself in each of these domains what is a meaningful self-care activity for me? Remember we can find meaning by looking to our WHYs.

Here are some of the self-care activities that work for me (my self-care WHATs):

Domain: Health
Self-care WHAT: Running
WHY: Connection to nature; feeling of freedom

Domain: Leisure
Self-care WHAT: Dinners with friends (especially outside)
WHY: Connection with people; feeling part of something bigger than myself; fun

Domain: Work
Self-care WHAT: Blocking off hours in the morning once a week for writing
WHY: Freedom; creativity

Domain: Relationships
Self-care WHAT: Long weekends up north with my husband
WHY: Connection; nature; growth as a couple, as parents; authenticity; (and freedom from the children!)

If you like the idea try it out and see how it works for you!

“Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”
From the book Smarter Faster Better, by Charles Duhigg

I know I promised to talk about finding your lead domino (2) and making daily commitments to action. I did not forget. So stay tuned for part 3 of Want to change the world, start by connecting to you!


Jodie Richardson 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.


References

Great book by Charles Duhigg, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business

Check out this fun video by Dr. Russ Harris: Values vs Goals     

Intrinsic motivation is proven to help us reach our goals long-term. See: Koestner, R. (2008). Reaching One’s Personal Goals: A Motivational Perspective Focused on Autonomy. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 60-67. 

Also see: Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

1. These are really great questions that Benjamin Schoendorff asks in his ACT matrix training to get at what’s truly important to people and to break down life into important domains. You can find out more about the ACT matrix here. Clinicians can check out his book: The Essential Guide to the ACT matrix.

2. Borrowing this term from Tim Ferriss and The 4 Hour Workweek

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.

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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?

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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.


References

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.