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How to Stop the Self-Criticism and Feel Better About You

Improve your self-esteem with step-by-step directions.

There are some very good cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies for reducing self-criticism; and by doing so, improving self-confidence and self-esteem. Unfortunately, people sometimes have difficulty following them; and then discount whole approach. Rather than giving up altogether, I suggest you adapt your chosen strategy by using compassionate self-awareness.

Below is a CBT approach that you can adapt, if needed:

Begin by completing a chart (daily) with column headings: Situation, Self-Critical Thoughts, Consequences (feelings & behaviors), and Rational Responses. Here is an example of how you might fill this out:

Situation: Alice won when we played tennis, and (like always) she went on about how she's better than me.

Self-Critical Thoughts: She's right; I'm such a loser. I'm no good at tennis or anything.

Consequences (feelings & behaviors): I feel angry with myself and want to withdraw from the world. When I play tennis, all I can do is think about how bad I am at it, which makes me feel worse and play worse.

Rational Response: She played tennis on her high school team and has continued to play through her life. I just began playing about a year ago. So, it makes sense that she would be better than me at this. But that does not mean that I'm a loser. I will get better the more I practice. And, even if I never get really good at it, I can still enjoy playing. Also, there is much more to my life than tennis. For example, I'm really creative, which something I feel good about.

By repeatedly completing this exercise, people are often able to change their thinking. So, if being self-critical is a struggle for you, this is definitely worth trying.

You'll need patience with yourself - not something that comes naturally to people who tend to view themselves negatively. At first it can take time to even realize that your thoughts of "that's just the way I am" (e.g. I'm a loser) are really self-criticisms. And when you do realize this, more 'rational' alternatives might not come to mind easily (and most likely not in the moment). But with practice, time, and patience, there's a good chance you will begin to view yourself more positively.

Unfortunately, you might also find that you remain committed to your old, self-critical beliefs - irrationally fighting the new, more positive thoughts. Then, to make matters worse, you might chastise yourself for this resistance.

I can almost feel some of you smiling knowingly at this point. If you are just imagining this is what will happen (but you haven't actually tried it), I still suggest that you try the technique. You might be surprised by how well it works; that is, with practice. But, if you have already given something like this a try - and it's failed - then read on for what to do next.

How Compassionate Self-Awareness Can Help

Despite how it might feel, there is a way out of this dilemma. The problem is that you are trying to make yourself believe something that you don't really believe. It's like someone else trying to convince you that night is day; you will probably never believe them no matter what they say. And, the harder "they" or you push, the more defensive you're likely to get.

So, consider a different approach. Focus on really trying to understand and "get" where your self-criticism is coming from. I don't mean to say that you agree with the self-criticism, but rather that you work to understand how you arrived at it.

To understand how this might help, think about your interactions with other people. When they show that they are really trying to understand you and have compassion for your pain or struggles, you are more likely to open up. This same thing happens when you approach yourself with a true desire to understand your thinking and with an honest compassion for your pain. This combination of self-compassion and self-awareness (compassionate self-awareness) can be very powerful.

In our current example, compassionate self-awareness can help you not just intellectually understand your frustration with yourself when playing tennis with Alice, but also really "get" where the self-criticism is coming from. For instance, you might realize, Given how competitive my family was when I was growing up, no wonder I'm so hard on myself. And even though I know that I have a lot going for me, it's no wonder I still feel like losing is not acceptable. Once you "get" this, you will be naturally more likely to be less self-critical.

In this way, compassionate self-awareness can be used to help the more typical cognitive-behavioral therapy method attain its goal: to relieve you of your self-criticism and help you to be more positive with yourself. In my next blog entry, I will walk you through a CBT chart that focuses on increasing self-compassion as a way to address self-criticism.

Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.

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