By Sarah Best, LMSW
Most of us are much harsher on ourselves than we ever are on others. We give our friends leeway to make mistakes and be human, but expect superhuman performance from ourselves. Since that is, of course, impossible, we end up viewing ourselves in an unfair and unkind light.
Developing a balanced, realistic view of yourself takes curiosity and commitment. You must be willing to look at the ways in which you talk to and appraise yourself, and change those habits. But it's worth it. Healthy self-appraisal is associated with reduced depression and anxiety, more satisfying relationships, and improved overall quality of life.
Here are 6 steps to start viewing yourself in a more healthy way:
1. Listen to your self-talk.
Most of us talk to ourselves—narrating our successes and failures—all day. This streaming commentary, which cognitive-behavioral therapists call "self-talk," is usually internal and automatic—we're often not aware that it's going on at all.
When you spill your coffee, do you declare yourself a slob who ruins everything, or do you laugh it off? When a friend compliments your dress, do you think, "I feel great in this!" or wonder if she's implying that your clothes are usually frumpy? The first step to changing how you view yourself is to listen to how you talk to yourself.
2. Evaluate its credibility.
Once you've tuned in to your self-talk, explore it. Healthy self-talk is based in reality, but unhealthy self-talk distorts it. Whether it exaggerates the consequences of your actions ("You're a coffee-spilling slob!") or claims to know others' opinions about you ("She thinks I'm frumpy!"), unhealthy self-talk triggers real emotions with unrealistic, or irrational, statements.
Here are some irrational thought patterns common in negative self-talk:
- Catastrophizing—Predicting negative outcomes while ignoring other possibilities.
- Black and white thinking—Seeing things (including yourself) as all good or all bad, rather than somewhere in the middle.
- Mind reading—Assuming that you know what others are thinking.
- Emotional reasoning—Believing something is true because you feel like it is, without having any real evidence.
3. Examine the evidence.
Challenge unhelpful messages: When there isn't compelling evidence for your unhealthy self-talk statements, tell yourself so—again and again.
4. Generate an alternative hypothesis, based on the evidence you do have.
For example, if you declare yourself a terrible mother when you lose your cool and snap at your child, encourage yourself to think again. Instead of branding yourself terrible, recognize that you must have been really frustrated. Then frame the incident as an opportunity to teach your child, and remind yourself about the importance of taking time to care for yourself when things heat up.
5. Construct a statement to correct the error.
Identify the thinking error (like the ones listed above). Does a lukewarm, but still solid, review from your boss leave you convinced that you're going to be fired (and broke, and homeless)? If so, recognizing that you're engaging in catastrophic thinking can help you reign in your fears and put your review, even if disappointing, into a more realistic perspective.
6. Pretend you're talking to a self-critical friend, and offer words of encouragement to yourself.
This is self-compassion, and we all deserve it.
Once you build the habit of challenging negative self-talk, you'll probably find that it has less power over you, and starts to occur less frequently. This is a great sign that you're doing the hard—but worthwhile—work of silencing your irrational inner critic and beginning a more peaceful and supportive relationship with yourself.
Learn more in Overcoming Low Self-Esteem.
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