Do you find yourself dwelling on negative thoughts about yourself—repeatedly putting yourself down, criticizing yourself, comparing yourself to other people you think are perfect? When you make a mistake, do you think it’s absolutely awful, that anyone else would have done a better job, and that it's an example of some permanent flaw you have? If so, then, like many people, you are often your own worst enemy, negating everything you do and blowing things up as if your mistakes are the worst that anyone can imagine.
Depression and anxiety are often due to the self-critical voice that defeats you before you start, robs you of any credit for anything that you do, and makes you afraid of trying anything because you fear the loathing and regret that will follow. In this post, I outline seven techniques to defeat this self-critical voice, so that you can feel better about being a real human being.
1. Identify your negative thoughts.
Your negative thoughts about yourself may be so automatic that you don't even notice them. But try to catch them, write them down, and then see if there is a pattern. For example, you might say the following to yourself: “I am a failure. I am so boring. Nothing I do works out. I can’t do anything right. What a screw-up I am.” Start catching these arrows directed against you.
2. Define your terms.
Now that you can see the deprecatory comments you direct toward yourself, let’s see if you can define the terms you are using. For example, how would you define “failure”? Is it someone who fails at something? What would be the opposite? Perhaps you might see that you succeed and fail at different things at different times. When you reduce yourself to these all-or-nothing terms, you label yourself in ways that are unrealistic and inaccurate.
3. What is the evidence for and against your self-criticism?
What is the evidence in favor of the label "failure"? Perhaps you didn’t do well on the exam, your date didn’t go well, or you said something you wished you hadn’t say. OK. Now let’s look at the evidence that you are not a failure. Perhaps you have friends, you are doing well at work, you try to be a decent person, and you try to help other people. Weigh the evidence for and against. What do you conclude?
4. What is the advantage of criticizing yourself?
Some people think that they need to criticize themselves to self-motivate. If you have a dog, then you realize that scolding and yelling will get you nowhere. If self-criticism worked, then people who get things done would hate themselves. Is your self-criticism really helping you achieve your goals? Or is it defeating you?
5. Replace self-criticism with self-reward.
Try this for a week: Rather than focus on what you don’t do perfectly, try to give yourself credit for five things every day. This could include simple things like going to work, speaking kindly to someone, eating healthy foods, or making an effort to treat yourself better. If you make some effort at your work or exercise, try giving yourself credit for it — even just for making the effort. The more you reward yourself, the more likely you are to move forward.
6. Do you really need to evaluate yourself?
Has it ever occurred to you that you don’t really need to evaluate yourself? What if we removed that self-critical, evaluating part of your brain for a day? Let’s say, rather than evaluate yourself, you decide to focus on your specific goals — like exercise, getting work done, and doing kind things for other people, including yourself. You can reach your goal without criticizing yourself. Try it.
7. Replace evaluation with observing and accepting.
Rather than measuring, comparing, and evaluating yourself, consider simply observing yourself and then accepting yourself. Take exercise: Let’s imagine that your exercise for the day is to take a walk for 40 minutes. Rather than measuring and criticizing yourself, you decide to observe what you are doing. For me, it might be that I am walking down Third Avenue, I am listening to a tape to learn some Spanish, it’s a sunny day, and I will get to work a little early today. No evaluations.
Try to accept yourself as you are, as you continue to move toward your goal. Accepting yourself means that you see yourself realistically, in the present moment, without judgment. You can free yourself from the self-critic by accepting who you are and saying, “I know I am not perfect, just like everyone I know, but I can accept that. I can accept my mistakes; I can accept my frustration; and I can accept that I have unfinished work to do. I have goals. I accept that.”
Freeing yourself from the self-critic allows you to step away from depression and anxiety and frees you from the burden that you have imposed on yourself. You don’t have to be your own worst enemy.
In my next blog, we will look at more techniques to use to answer that self-critic.
Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers: