9 Ways to Combat Self-Criticism

7 minute read

A greatest-hits soundtrack produced by self-criticism would sound something like this: You should have done better on that project. Why isn’t the house cleaner? You tanked the whole soccer game! You’re a bad parent, an even worse colleague, and a sorry excuse for a friend. And you’re wasting so much time right now that you’ll be late—again.

The tendency to engage in negative self-evaluation afflicts almost everyone, sometimes profoundly. “People treat their self-criticism as though it’s part of themselves, like their eye color,” says Rachel Turow, a Seattle-based clinical psychologist and author of The Self-Talk Workout. “They say, ‘Oh, I’ve just always been my own worst critic.’ And a lot of people don’t realize how damaging it is.”

Listening to your loud inner critic is a habit—not a fixed personality trait, Turow clarifies—often exacerbated by childhood trauma, emotional abuse, bullying, sexism, homophobia, and social-media use. It can also be a form of self-protection: If you’re mean to yourself, “then nobody else can hurt you as bad as you’re going to hurt yourself,” Turow says.

But there’s good reason to work on silencing self-criticism, which has been found to worsen depression, anxiety, disordered eating, juvenile delinquency, self-harm, and suicidal behavior and ideation. (In some cases, it’s a reciprocal relationship: depression also triggers self-criticism, an effect researchers have found is particularly pronounced for teen girls.) People with higher levels of self-compassion, on the other hand, are less likely to experience mental-health challenges.

There are two broad types of self-criticism, notes Lakeasha Sullivan, a clinical psychologist based in Atlanta. Some of these thoughts are first-person “I statements,” like: “I’m so lazy.” Others use second-person language: “You didn’t go to the gym all week.” The latter tend to be particularly insidious. “Our brains process those thoughts as if someone in a position of authority is talking to us,” she says. “They know all our flaws, and they pretend like they can predict the future.”

Fortunately, plenty of tools can help us speak more kindly to ourselves. We asked experts to share their favorite ways to overcome critical self-talk.

Investigate the origins

The first step to thwarting self-criticism is understanding where the thoughts originated, says Tiffany Green, a psychotherapist in Chicago. When her clients say negative things about themselves, she often asks them, “Where did this come from? Who was the first person you heard say this about you?” The response tends to be revealing: maybe their mom called them lazy, or their grandmother told them they needed to lose weight.

“It starts to feel like a lightbulb,” Green says. “It allows them to say, ‘Maybe this doesn’t need to continue.’” The experience is a helpful way to separate yourself from critical thoughts, she adds, rather than accepting them as your own.

Change the language around it

Sullivan likes to remind her clients that we are not our thoughts—we’re people who access those thoughts. That language helps create powerful distance. For example, we can respond to a hurtful thought by saying, “My inner critic says I’m lazy,” vs. “I’m being lazy.”’ “That makes a world of difference in how it feels,” she says. “We can talk back to the critic. We can ignore the critic. We can see if there’s something there that’s valuable from the critic, instead of seeing it as some kind of self-condemnation.”

Set up a self-criticism jar

Every time you catch yourself engaging in a critical thought, throw a coin or piece of paper into a jar. Green recommends displaying it somewhere that’s ultra-visible. The goal in the beginning is to fill the jar with lots of coins, because that’s a sign that you’ve increased your awareness of your thought patterns—and the impact they have on your emotions and behaviors. Over the next three to six months, however, you should notice that you’re adding to it less frequently. Having a visual way to monitor your progress can be motivating and rewarding, she says.

Enlist support

Sometimes, critical thoughts become like elevator music you don’t even notice playing in the background. Green suggests asking a partner, friend, or therapist to gently point out when you’re speaking negatively about yourself. Choose wisely, because “it can be very off-putting to have someone say, ‘You just criticized yourself,’” she acknowledges. “It feels like more criticism.” A trusted confidante, however, can help you notice patterns that otherwise wouldn’t have been on your radar.

Practice loving-kindness meditation

Research suggests that a type of mindfulness called loving-kindness meditation can improve emotional well-being. It can also help change up your self-talk, Turow says. The practice involves repeating phrases to yourself, like “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease.” “You silently repeat these for, say, 5 minutes,” Green explains. “A lot of people say it seems corny, but after they do it for a few weeks, they notice some differences.”

It’s helpful to have an alternative to the default criticisms typically running through your mind, she adds. When that hurtful noise in your brain gets loud, you’ll know exactly what to say to yourself.

Try a breathing exercise

If adopting a meditation routine sounds daunting, Turow suggests starting with a super-short exercise that only requires one breath. Simply say “inhale, my friend” as you breathe in, and “exhale, my friend” as you breathe out. “Notice the feeling of breathing in, and referring to yourself as a friend,” she says—an act of kindness that can help transform your default self-criticism into self-love.

Celebrate your wins

One of Turow’s go-to self-talk strategies is called “spot the success.” “It’s sort of the opposite of a to-do list,” she says. “It’s like a done list.”

Every night before you go to bed, write down 10 things you did that day that benefited you, somebody else, or the world at large. “No item is too small. You texted your friend, you got out of bed, you took your vitamin,” she notes. “It generates this sense in your brain, like, ‘I am doing these good things.’” That can be a powerful antidote to self-criticism: and the all-too-familiar feeling that you didn’t get enough done that day.

Replace your inner critic with a neutral voice

Correcting negative thoughts isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Green suggests first countering them with neutral thoughts; you can work your way up to the positive ones later.

Imagine, for example, that you routinely criticize your hair. Instead of telling yourself it’s lush and gorgeous, try this: “What if I’m wrong? What if my hair is fine?” That delivers you to a place where you can question the negative thought—and it’s more realistic (and genuine) than forcing yourself to embrace a positive attitude.

Look for the (gentle) lessons

Self-criticism can sometimes contain important information and even prove helpful, Turow says. You might, for instance, be hard on yourself for not keeping in good touch with your friends. “That’s valuable information,” she says. “I think it’s ultimately coming from this place inside that does want to nourish your friendships.” Or, if you’re upset with yourself for not making it to the gym, that could signal a desire for a healthier lifestyle.

Turow advises noticing the criticism gently, and then learning from it. Shift how you talk to yourself, and reframe the message. Instead of “You suck at keeping in touch,” try “This is really important to me. I wonder how I can make it happen more often.”

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