Don't Be Beaten Down by Self-Critical Thoughts
"How could I be so stupid?" "I screwed up again!" "I just can't get anything right." "I always let everyone down." "What's wrong with me? I'm just hopeless!"
These are the most obvious examples of self-critical thoughts. Some other types are more subtle. They camouflage themselves and pretend to be our own spontaneous thoughts, rather than someone else's evaluations that we have internalized as our own beliefs.
Watch a toddler learning to walk. When she stumbles does she think, "Oh, I'm such a klutz! Other people can learn this walking thing, but not me. I'm just hopeless. I might as well accept that I'll crawl for the rest of my life"?
Of course not!
What would you think of a parent who said to their toddler, "Get up stupid! What's wrong with you? You're hopeless! You'll never learn to walk, like the rest of us."
Would you expect a parent to react like that? Or would you expect the parent to smile encouragingly and say, "Look at you! You took a step! Wow! You can do it!"
Somewhere in our development, however, an older sibling, or a parent, or babysitter, or playmates, or a teacher told us we weren't okay -- that we were fundamentally damaged or wrong.
If we got enough of these messages, we eventually internalized a core belief that we are incompetent, worthless, or no good.
Usually the people who convinced us of this were passing along their own internalized self-condemning messages that had been fed to them when they were growing up. But we have the ability to break this unfortunate chain of negativity.
The First Step
Our initial task is to simply become aware of our self-judgmental thoughts -- not only the most obvious -- but also the more subtle ones, and the automatic way in which these thoughts trigger an emotional response.
Notice, for example, how you ward off compliments, and counter them with self-disparagement. Or how you so often expect disapproval from others.
The process of becoming aware of the internal, critical self-dialogue takes time. Labeling the thoughts, "This is a judgmental thought," begins to interfere with their automatic quality. The mere act of beginning to observe these thoughts more clearly initiates a subtle process of changing our relationship to them.
In the light of awareness, we begin to notice the tiresome, repetitive nature of these thoughts. They give the same message over and over, like an endless loop. There is nothing creative about them. They are merely echoes from the past.
"Futility" could be defined as doing the same things over and over even though they don't work. In that sense, these self-critical judgments are futile. If they were of any benefit in creating change, we would have long ago gotten past the need to constantly flagellate ourselves with them.
Your Inner Caring Relationship
Each time we repeat this cycle of judgmental thought, we are replaying very old scenes from the past. Only this time we have internalized both the role of the berating critic and the role of the vulnerable child. It is as if one part of our mind is scolding and insulting the other part of our mind. And, whether we recognize it yet or not, this hurts our heart and wounds our spirit.
Imagine a workplace where the managers are continually berating the employees, the employees are constantly criticizing each other, and the customers are always unhappy and dissatisfied.
Would you want to work in such an environment? Do you think that this business would run effectively?
Obviously such a system does not work. And yet, when a similar dynamic is going on in our own mind, we tend to accept it as how things have to be.
If you have a dog and you are trying to teach him a trick, do you think scolding the dog and beating the dog is going to be effective in teaching the trick? Nor will this kind of tactic work when we do it to ourselves.
The Next Step
When we become aware of the negative thoughts constantly whispering in the back of our minds, and when we realize how repetitive, automatic, and useless these thoughts are, we may have either or both of the following reactions: (1.) becoming angry with the critical voice in our head, (2.) becoming amused by how it continually tries to convince of us its view.
Becoming angry is similar to a protective adult stepping in to prevent the bully from harassing the child. "Leave me alone! Stop bothering me!" we might say to our inner critic, with some irritation.
Later in the process, when the formerly tyranical voice has shriveled in its power, we may laugh when the critical thoughts arise again. "Oh, you again! Trying to fool me." At this point the inner critic is no longer seen as a powerful inner force, but rather is more like a rusty inner mechanism -- a series of silly old tapes that replay themselves automatically.
When we get to that stage, the judgmental voices are no longer able to trigger an automatic emotional melt-down. It is like there is now insulation between the self-critical thought and the emotional triggering.
Disputation, Replacement, and Being Unaffected
Aside from developing awareness of the inner critic, there are three primary tools for deconstructing its mechanism. The first is disputation. We examine our most repetitive negative thoughts and ask ourselves, "Is this true?" We examine the evidence against the thought, and realize that the judgmental thought has no solid basis. This, in itself, doesn't mean we don't continue to hold onto it emotionally, as a core negative belief. But by repeating the process of disputation over and over, we begin to weaken the solidity of the core belief.
Replacement means substituting something else for the harsh self-judgment. This means noticing and acknowledging what is good about us, rather than dwelling always on what falls short. It means affirming ourselves and seeking out people and situations that are affirming. It also means cultivating an element of kindness toward ourselves -- especially toward the vulnerable, childlike part of ourselves -- our tender heart. Instead of focusing on messages of "you're not good enough" we focus on sending ourselves messages of "I love you," "I care for you," "I'm here for you," "I'll protect you."
This is the "adult" part of
ourselves communicating with the vulnerable part. We reparent
ourselves, treating the vulnerable aspect of ourselves the way a good,
wise, and loving parent would. We encourage and nurture our growth. We
celebrate our successes. And we realistically appraise ourselves with
kindness and without condemnation. We stop looking primarily to
external standards to measure ourselves against.
We can do this process alone, but it is better to do it with the help of others -- therapists, counselors, friends, loved ones, like-minded people.