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Why You Deserve a Break, From Yourself

5 reasons to ignore your self-critical thoughts.


Do you find that there is a critical voice in your head that follows you around all day and all night? It may pop up as you get out of bed (“Late again!”) or when you look in the mirror (“You look exhausted.”) Or maybe you notice it when you get to work. (“You never get anything done.”) When you meet people, you could hear it again. (“What a bore you are.”)

If this sounds at all familiar, you might take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone—not even close. Almost all of us have heard that voice at times. The question is: What are you going to do about it?

Self-criticism won’t motivate you.

Some people think they need to criticize themselves to get motivated to get things done. “I will lose all my motivation if I don’t criticize myself for my stupid mistakes," one woman told me after reporting that she was behind on her work because she felt too depressed to get things done. But self-criticism is a key symptom of depression and anxiety—and it will make it difficult for you to try new behavior out of fear you'll end up filled with regret. Self-criticism can demotivate and demoralize you, siphoning off the creativity and energy you need to get things done. Think about this woman's theory of motivation: It would imply that the most highly motivated people would be those people who are the most self-critical and depressed. Does that make sense? Or would rewarding yourself and encouraging yourself be a better strategy?

Don’t take your self-criticism so seriously.

Just because you are thinking something doesn’t mean that it is important, relevant, or something to dwell on. I like to think of these negative thoughts as telemarketing calls you don't have to take, or an approaching train that’s not going in your direction. Simply having a negative thought does not mean it is at all relevant to your valued goals. If you stay focused on your goals—and carry out challenging and sometimes difficult behaviors to accomplish them—you can allow the self-critical voice to prattle away in the background while you continue to move forward. Then you can imagine hearing the self-criticism as overhearing someone else’s conversation.

Replace self-criticism with self-correction.

An alternative to the self-critical voice is the self-correction voice. Imagine the following: While learning how to play tennis, you hit the ball into the net. Your coach comes out and tells you to whack yourself in the head 10 times. Is that good coaching? In contrast, imagine a different coach who sees your error, then shows you exactly how to hit the ball over the net. Which is the better approach? Similarly, you can correct yourself without criticizing yourself. You can say, “OK, that didn’t work this time, so let me try a different approach next time." When you replace self-criticism with self-correction, you can use your mistakes as opportunities to improve.

Be specific.

Self-criticism is often general and vague. Seldom do you think, “I need to hold my hands lower on the bat.” Rather, you think in general terms: “I’m a lousy hitter,” or, worse, “I’m an idiot." Check out your self-critical comments, consider if they're mostly gross generalizations, and try to replace those general thoughts with others about specific behaviors you can change. After all, it’s a lot easier to change the way you hold the bat than to stop being an (undefined) idiot.

Avoid the double-standard.

Finally, be as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend. I have found that the outwardly nicest people I know are often incredibly self-critical, even cruel, toward themselves. This is a double standard that only makes one feel worse. Try this instead: Write out all your self-critical thoughts for a day, and then imagine saying all these things to your best friend. You'll likely think it would be cruel and unfair to do that. In contrast, try saying supportive things to yourself that you would want to say to a friend. You will get a lot further rewarding and supporting yourself than treating yourself in a way you wouldn’t treat a friend—or, for that matter, a stranger.

You won’t build a successful life criticizing yourself—you'll build it on getting things done.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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