By Malinda Lehnert, ALMFT, Chapin & Russell Associates Neurotherapy Institute of Central Illinois
I didn’t finish all of my tasks today… I’m a failure.” Something negative like this thought can be all too common for some of us. Self-criticism can often be an automatic reaction to a negative situation, perceived mistake, or embarrassing moment. While the occasional self-critical thought is normal, research has found that if people respond to themselves in this way more often than not, they may be contributing to low mood, increased depression, social anxiety, or even feelings of worthlessness. If left unchecked, our inner self-critic can cause some serious problems or keep us from personal growth. So, what can we do to make that self-critical voice smaller and less significant? There are several tips and habits that we can use to bring about more self-compassion, which is a powerful mindset that empowers us to grow and thrive.
Some small changes that can be implemented to increase self-compassion:
1. Recognize the emotions present in self-critical thought. Your emotions are good information to help you understand what is behind your self-criticism. In the example from the beginning of the article, maybe the thought is coming from a place of tiredness, defeat, or frustration with an unrealistic deadline. Recognizing your emotions will help you understand yourself better, which will help lessen automatic criticism.
2. Catch the self-critical thought with curiosity. Imagine it is a bird flying through your head and you can catch it with a net to study it. Is it helpful to call yourself a failure? Is it useful to focus on what you did not accomplish today? If the answer to one or both of those questions is “no,” consider reframing your thought. In the example at the beginning of this article, it could look like “I prioritized three tasks today that helped me move forward on my project. I have a couple more tasks, and I will do my best to get them finished tomorrow or ask for help if I need it.”
3. If you have a self-critical thought, ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend if they said that out loud?” Sometimes we find it difficult to give ourselves grace and kindness, but most of us would not respond critically to a friend who is being negative toward themselves.
4. Identify your strengths. Whether it is a task at work you’re feeling unsure about, a moment where you got frustrated with your children, or a bad test grade at school, work to identify positive qualities about yourself in regard to whatever role you are in at that moment to fight the urge to self-criticize and point out what did not go well.
5. Change your scenery. Sometimes the self-critical thought is intense enough that it takes over. In this case, it can be helpful to switch to a different task, especially a task that activates the body or soothes the mind. Some ideas include walking outside, sitting in the sun, putting on some favorite music, or lighting a candle with a good scent.
If you find yourself being ruled by your self-critical thoughts or if they are beginning to get in the way of your day-to-day life, it is helpful to reach out to a professional who can work with you to build positive habits, increase self-compassion, and begin to see yourself with a more balanced perspective. This spring, consider “out with the old and in with the new” for your thoughts toward yourself!
Malinda Lehnert is an Associate Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Chapin & Russell Associates, 3020 W. Willow Knolls Dr., Peoria, IL. She can be reached by calling 309-681-5850. www.chapinandrussell.com