February 3, 2017
By Lisa Linardatos, PhD, Psychologist
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!
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.