Dealing with your Self-Critic

Let’s talk about the self-critic that sits on your shoulder or lives in your head or floats about during the day. You know, the one that says: “I am not enough. I am not smart enough. I’m not thin enough. I am ugly. I am a failure. I should have known better. Everyone hates me. I am unlovable. I’m a bad person. Nothing ever works out for me.”

The reality is that many of us say the meanest things to ourselves. I have done this so much in my own life. I can do 10 things well but if one negative thing happens it sinks me, defines me, and has this way of becoming the “Truth” about me. This process of discounting the positive and seeking out the negative is not a new phenomenon. We are hard-wired in this way and further reinforced by socio-cultural norms. For example, in her research on self-compassion, Kristin Neff found that most people believed that self-criticism helps them stay disciplined, that we “need” to be hard on ourselves to be successful, responsible, and accepted by our peers.  However, the research shows something completely different. Studies show that the more we practice kindness, validation, compassion, and curiosity toward ourselves, the healthier and happier we are.

So, I invite you to try and soften that self-critic ever so slightly (or, if you are able, send it flying off your shoulder and into the ditch behind you). Here are a few suggestions that have worked for me and those I work with:

  • Track the number of times per day you speak negatively about yourself.
  • Replace judgmental language (“I am disgusting”) with non-judgmental words and stick to the facts (“I am having a hard time feeling comfortable in my clothing right now”). When we use non-judgmental language and stick to the facts, we reduce emotion dysregulation.
  • Every behaviour has a function. There is a reason for everything we do, no matter how maladaptive something seems. Why do you think your self-critic hangs around for so long? Get curious instead of feeling angry or ashamed. Where did the critic come from? What is the function of this behaviour?
  • Write to your self-critic and express what the impact is on you. Ask that the harsh comments stop now.
  • Try a thought record. Write down all the evidence that supports the negative thought and then all the evidence that does NOT support that thought. Is there a more balanced or neutral way to look at a situation?
  • Every day, write down 3 things that went well, regardless of your mood.
  • Finally, sometimes I just observe the self-critic (remember, the more you push a thought or emotion away, the stronger it comes back). I watch what it says and does, but I don’t react to it – like watching a wild thunderstorm from inside my house. “Okay, I see you, and I am not getting drawn in right now. I am going to stay safe over here until this settles down.” For me, knowing that every thought, every emotion, every situation is temporary, helps me to stay grounded.

What have you learned about your self-critic? Do you have other ways of managing harsh, critical thoughts? We would love to hear from you.

Dr. Federici is a Clinical Psychologist, the Owner and Clinical Director of MidlandDBT, and a registered member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario. She is the incoming (elected) Co-Chair for the Suicide and DBT Special Interest Group for the Academy of Eating Disorders. Dr. Federici is a recognized authority on eating disorder treatment and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). She also treats mood and anxiety disorders and PTSD using DBT, CBT, and mindfulness-based interventions. Her work has been presented at international conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals and invited book chapters. Dr Federici wanted to have a place where she could write about the things that felt important to her and to her community, and where she could post enlightening articles written by her clinical team and other guest bloggers on topics of importance to her clients and colleagues.