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7 Ways to Overcome Toxic Self-Criticism

Don't let your inner dialogue rob you of mental strength.

Source: Dubova/Shutterstock

Your private inner dialogue can either be a powerful stepping stone or a major obstacle to reaching your goals. If you constantly make negative predictions like, "I'm going to mess up," or you call yourself names, your self-talk will rob you of mental strength.

Your thoughts affect how you feel and how you behave. The way you think has the power to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thinking, "I'll never get this job," may cause you to feel discouraged as you walk into an interview. Consequently, you may slump your shoulders, stare at the floor, make a poor first impression—and inadvertently sabotage your chances of success.

If you have a harsh inner critic, you're not alone: Self-doubt, catastrophic predictions, and harsh words are common. But you don't have to be a victim of your own verbal abuse.

From among the many exercises that we use in therapy to help people change the way they think, here are seven ways to tame your inner critic:

1. Pay attention to your thoughts.

You're so used to hearing your own narration that it's easy to become oblivious to the messages you're sending yourself. Start paying close attention to your thoughts and you may discover that you call yourself names or talk yourself out of doing things that are hard.

It's estimated that you have around 60,000 thoughts per day. That's 60,000 chances to either build yourself up or tear yourself down. Learning to recognize your thought patterns is key to understanding how your thinking affects your life.

2. Change the channel.

While problem-solving is helpful, ruminating is destructive. When you keep replaying a mistake you made in your head over and over again or you can't stop thinking about something bad that happened, you'll drag yourself down.

The best way to change the channel is by getting active. Find an activity that will temporarily distract you from the negative tapes playing in your head. Go for a walk, call a friend to talk about a different subject, or tackle a project you've been putting off. But refuse to sit and listen to your brain beat you up.

3. Examine the evidence.

Your thoughts aren't always true. In fact, they're often exaggeratedly negative. It's important to examine the evidence before you believe your thoughts.

If you think, "I'm going to embarrass myself when I give that presentation," pause for a minute. Take out a piece of paper and write down all the evidence that indicates you're going to fail. Then, list all the evidence that you aren't going to fail. Looking at the evidence on both sides can help you look at the situation a little more rationally and less emotionally. Reminding yourself that your thoughts aren't 100 percent true can give you a boost in confidence.

4. Replace exaggeratedly negative thoughts with realistic statements.

When you recognize that your negative thoughts aren't completely true, try replacing those statements with something more realistic. If you think, "I'll never get a promotion," a good replacement statement might be, "If I work hard and I keep investing in myself, I may get promoted someday."

You don't need to develop unrealistically positive statements; overconfidence can be almost as damaging as serious self-doubt. But a balanced, realistic outlook is key to becoming mentally stronger.

5. Consider how bad it would be if your thoughts were true.

It's tempting to envision a misstep turning into an utter catastrophe, but often the worst-case scenario isn't as bad as we fear. If you predict you're going to get rejected for a job, ask yourself how bad would that actually be? Rejection stings but it's not the end of the world. Reminding yourself that you can handle tough times increases your confidence. It can also decrease much of the dread and worrisome thoughts that can stand in your way.

6. Ask yourself what advice you'd give to a friend.

It's often easier to be more compassionate toward other people than to yourself. For example, while you might call yourself an idiot for making a mistake, it's unlikely you'd say that to a loved one. When you're struggling with tough times or doubting your ability to succeed, ask yourself, "What would I say to a friend who had this problem?" Then, offer yourself those kind, wise words.

7. Balance self-improvement with self-acceptance.

There's a difference between telling yourself that you're not good enough and reminding yourself that there's room for improvement. Accept your flaws for what they are right now while committing to improvement in the future. Although it sounds a bit counterintuitive, you can do both simultaneously: You might accept that you feel anxious about an upcoming presentation at work while also making a decision to improve your public speaking skills. Accept yourself for who you are right now while investing in becoming an even better version of yourself down the road.

Train Your Brain to Think Differently

Your mind can be your best asset or worst enemy. It's important to train it well. The good news is that mental strength exercises will help you silence the toxic self-criticism for good. With practice, you can develop a more productive inner dialogue that will fuel your efforts to reach your goals.

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