Self-Critical? Time to Lighten Up on Yourself

Maybe it’s a persistence nagging, a voice in your head warning you that you better do well in that interview and not screw it up. Or it is the scolding voice you hear as you mentally replay every nuanced moment after, detailing each hesitation, criticizing each of your answers that seemed too limp. Or maybe if it is a simple but powerful wave of guilt or shame that lets you know that you once again didn’t measure up.

However, it strikes you or haunts you, self-criticism can erode your self esteem, keep you constantly worrying and on edge about the future, creating an everyday-case of never being your own best friend. While there are several ways self-criticism can get rooted into your psyche, here are some of the most common sources:

Parents as role models

If one or both of your parents were hard-driving, perfectionistic, self critical themselves, it’s easy for you to be the same.  They may not have necessarily pushed you to be that way, but like food habits or holiday rituals you absorbed it as part of your family culture.

Parents with high expectations

Here you did feel the pressure. Report-card day filled you with dread, or maybe it making the cut for first string on the soccer team. The expectations were clear and high, and even if there may have not been much drama — no raging if you got that B on your report card — their sense of disappointment was palatable and heart-wrenching for you.

And if you were an oldest child or only child, this sensitivity to your parents’ expectations was undoubtedly running 24/7. You adopted that “good-kid” way of coping, leading you to feel like you always needed to walk on eggshells.

Parents who were abusive

If disappointment could easily turn into rage, or if anger was the norm, your fear was likely constant. This is the worst-case scenario. Here all the criticism and sense of worthlessness that you heard from your parent or parents became part of you. Now as an adult you treat yourself the same way your parents did when you were growing up.

Regardless of the face or the source, the results are the same — those outer experiences stay alive in the inner you and it doesn’t take much for those voices to now get triggered.

Here is your way out:

Realize that self-criticism, not your behavior, is the problem you’re trying to fix

What you don’t want to do is getting pulled into believing that the only way to escape these voices is to listen to them more and do better — to work harder, to not screw up, to just do what’s expected. Doing this will temporarily work when it works — you will feel “okay” or “relieved” once you find out you were offered that job and the voices quiet until that next expectation comes along.

But going down the road will never work over the long haul because you are not perfect, because you will never be forever able to measure up; you will continue to feel the pressure, and by staying on this path, will continue to strengthen those negative brain circuits.

In order to step out of this cycle you want to realize that it is the critical voices that you want to put to rest and not the behaviors that your self-critical voice is telling you you need to change.

Label these voices as blasts from the past

What you want to do here is mentally separate the past from the present. When the voices rear up, tell yourself that this is old junk from the past, part of your childhood that doesn’t need to be part of your adult present.

Push back 

In order to keep those voices from running amuck, you want to control your brain rather than your brain controlling you. There are two ways to do this:

One is envision your critical voice as some hyperalert guard dogs that start barking at the slightest noise. Here you are thinking of your critical voice as trying to be protective, alerting you to the danger of making mistakes.  Here you try and calm the dogs down — saying to them that you’re okay, there’s nothing to worry about, you’re in charge.

Another way is to envision your critical voice as a bully who is…bullying you. Here you push back, saying to it to leave you alone, to back off. What you are essentially doing here is saying now to that voice what you couldn’t as a child say to your parents.

See which of these approaches works best for you.

Counter with affirmations

The next step is replacing the critical messages with more positive and realistic ones: I did the best I could; this is a first-world problem and not everything is important; this isn’t the end of the world, and actually in the larger scheme of my life it’s insignificant; I am a good person and proud of what I have accomplished.

Will saying these positive messages help you feel better? Not right away; they will likely feel hollow, but over time these messages will take hold.

These are mental sides of calming your self-criticism. The next part is action:

Sort out priorities in advance

Self-criticism, like anxiety itself, tends to make everything seem important. In order to not become overwhelmed by the less-important aspects of life, you want to practice here is slowing down to consciously put situations in perspective and establish what really is and is not important.

The job interview, for example, is realistically more important than how well you wash your car. You say to yourself that you’ll prep as best you can for the interview and do your best, but also that the car is not so important and that a quick once-over on Saturday morning will be fine.

Experiment in doing less

Next you need to practice what you are saying. Experiment is the key word here. Putting those voices to rest is not another “should,” not another exam that you need to get a hundred on, not another forced march. You want to approach this with an attitude of curiosity, with lower expectations.

So, do the quick once-over on the car. What will happen next is that scolding voice will likely rear up telling you that you were careless and did a lousy job. Expect it, push back and then pat yourself on the back for breaking out of old patterns.

Define your own values

Because your critical voice is driven by childhood rules and expectation, it’s helpful to substitute those out-of-date shoulds with what you, as an adult, truly believe and value about life, relationships, being a good person. This is about upgrading your own mental software. Rather than forever being the good-kid trying to please those parents in your head, please yourself by… pleasing yourself, and taking the time to decide who you, right now, want to be.

The theme here is about not going on autopilot, about shaking those childhood voices and substituting your own adult ones, about treating yourself the way you would ideally like to treat your own child, about getting off that train that says that there are only right and wrong ways of running your life.

It’s about truly becoming your own best friend.

Time to lighten up?


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