“You really need to look after this.” Our family doctor casually tossed that at me with a look that I interpreted as disapproval. She was in the midst of treating some warts on the bottom of my 12-year-old’s foot with liquid nitrogen. And that one phrase was all it took to unleash my inner critic.
I imagine the gadfly who lives in my head looks and sounds like Cruella de Vil, the fur-obsessed villain in 101 Dalmatians. Sly and sinister, she lurks in the shadows waiting for any opportunity to hiss another insult in my ear. Her sole purpose is to remind me that I’m a hopeless loser and a fake.
“You’re so neglectful,” she sneered at me that day in the doctor’s office. “How could you forget to deal with warts?” As my chest clenched with mounting anxiety, my relentless inner critic pressed on: “The doctor agrees. In fact, she doesn’t even like you.” Then she hurled the clincher: “Face it, you’re a terrible mother.”
Sure, concluding I’m an unfit parent for not picking up Compound W is completely irrational. But these death spirals of self-criticism have plagued me my entire life. The constant judgment is exhausting, and to be honest, I’m sick of being so hard on myself.
So in 2018, I’d like to ditch my inner critic for good. Turns out there’s an entire school of thought called “self-compassion” to help me realize this New Year’s resolution. I asked some experts for surefire tips to get started.
1. Identify the source. Sadly, some people’s inner critics (a.k.a. negative core belief systems) are the result of being raised in an abusive home where they felt they were never good enough. Others might be contending with good old-fashioned Christian guilt thanks to hearing about sin from the pulpit every Sunday. As adults, we may continue to view ourselves harshly.
But many of us are self-critical simply because of societal pressures to have our lives all together — or at least to look like we do. “You walk around, putting on an outside face that shows perfection, and you know inside that you’re not [perfect],” says Patricia Baigent, the co-founder of Mindful Self-Compassion.ca. “You’re always going to be critical of that difference.”
2. Recognize that most inner critics actually want to help. Maybe our critic is trying to motivate us to get up in the morning to work out. Or perhaps it wants us to apply for a new job. Whatever the goal, it uses fear tactics to spur us on because it thinks we’ll never accomplish anything if we’re nice to ourselves. However, self-recrimination actually causes isolation, anxiety and depression in the long run. “If a child is struggling in math and comes home with an F on a test, would you say, ‘You are so stupid. You are not going to get it’? You would never do that, and yet we do that to ourselves,” says Baigent, who is based in Woodstock, Ont.
3. Take a deep breath. When our inner critics start whispering toxic thoughts, the resulting anxiety can cause overwhelming feelings of panic even before we realize what’s happening. Therapist Leanne Cameron of Coldbrook, N.S., recommends stopping, closing our eyes, taking deep breaths and simply repeating the words, “I’m safe; this is just my anxiety. I’m safe.”
In whatever way we’re comfortable — out loud, in our heads or through writing — we need to address that harsh inner voice. “I acknowledge the critic by listening to what it has to say with an attitude of curiosity,” Kristen Swanson, who runs Green Thoughts: A Mindful Awareness Project in Toronto, says in an email. “Then I speak directly to the critic in a kind, yet assertive way: ‘Listen, I know you’re worried about me, but the way you’re speaking to me is making the situation worse. Kindness and understanding would be more helpful.’”
4. Do the three-step. After addressing her inner critic, Swanson will reflect on the fact that she’s struggling with self-judgment and that “this is really hard right now.” This is one element of a three-part approach recommended by Kristin Neff, a University of Texas professor who is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion.
The second step is realizing that pretty much everyone on the planet deals with self-judgment and feels like a failure at times. “This common humanity is so important to see,” says Lynette Monteiro, co-founder and training director of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. “I’m not the only one afraid of making a fool of myself. I’m not the only one who has burned a recipe or flunked an exam.”
Then we need to talk to ourselves in the same manner as we would speak to someone we love. Baigent suggests reflecting, “What do I need to help myself? If I want to get over this hurdle in my life, I need to be kinder to myself.” She goes back to the example of the kid with the bad math mark. A compassionate parent wouldn’t berate her child, nor would she tell him to just quit the class altogether. Rather, she would offer something constructive, like working with a tutor or studying with a friend.
5. Look for evidence. Listing facts that contradict our inner critic’s accusations is a great way to combat irrational thinking. For example, when it says we haven’t done anything with our lives, we can start a mental checklist of our accomplishments. If it claims no one likes us, we can remind ourselves of friends, family, neighbours and colleagues who value us.
6. Practise, practise, practise. We can’t expect to get rid of our inner critics overnight. In fact, that sneaky voice may never go away entirely. After all, it has been reprimanding us our entire lives. “I have a few years’ experience now at trying to be kinder,” says Baigent, who also works for the Canadian Mental Health Association. “So I’m [making] new neural pathways. . . . It is a lot of work, and it is slow.”
Rewiring our brains requires us to focus on the positive whenever possible, not just when we’re facing down our inner critic. People of faith can regularly remind themselves that God loves them just as they are. Another good habit is to run through everything you’re thankful for, no matter how small, whenever you wake up, meditate, write in your journal or pray. “If your goal was to lift 100 pounds, you couldn’t just go into the gym and do it,” says Cameron on practising a positive outlook. “You have to go slowly, have patience with yourself, be consistent and keep going. And one day, you just do it.”
7. Reap the rewards. While dealing with our inner critic is a long process, we’ll notice changes from the get-go. For one, being self-compassionate allows us to be kinder to and more forgiving of others. “If you’re holding yourself to those perfectionist standards, you’re also holding other people there, which is not fair,” explains Baigent. “No one is perfect. We’re all basically a mess trying to get through our lives. We’re just human beings trying to figure it all out. All of us.”