I am sure most of you might have experienced a moment when you feel terrible for not having done something to your expectations, said something in anger and later regretted it or simply felt terrible that you might have displeased another. What do you do then? Well, my experience suggests that more often than not, you keep replaying that event in your mind with self-critical lingo: ‘I shouldn’t have said that, or I should have done this the other way’ or ‘I am good for nothing, I can never complete a task in hand, I commit too easily’ and so on and so forth. You beat yourself up till you tug all your self-confidence and everything you might have worked towards in the first place. Such is the unfortunate power of self-criticism.
Not that critical evaluation is bad. When things have not gone your way, you need to stand back and look at the situation with a new awareness. This helps you progress in your career, relationships or personal achievements. However, there is a fine line between awareness and criticism, a line divided by judgment. When self-awareness gets paired with a harsh verdict, you lose out on the powerful lesson the situation teaches you.
If you are one of those people who constantly battle with your strong inner critic, then believe you me, you are not alone. Many people struggle with this inner voice; from a CEO to a parent, everyone doubts their role sometime or the other, pondering over their mistake. They negate all the other hundred wise decisions they might have taken and instead harp on their one failure.
Why do we do this?
Our behavioural responses are learned. It is a socio-cultural training. Expectations of pleasing others are common in our society. From a young age, we are conditioned to toe the line. You are a good child if you get good grades or are popular with friends and generally a people pleaser. There is no room for failure or being different or autonomy.
In my experience parents also tow this line of judgment: beating themselves for feeling exhausted as parents and making excuses for the shortcoming of family members. They feel terrible if their child has not performed in a particular fashion. They, in turn, push the child’s boundaries and before you know it, a vicious cycle of pleasing others is in place.
This is how a critic takes birth inside your head, badgering away at your so-called shortcomings. This negative thinking can cause shyness, lack of self-esteem, anxiety attacks and in some cases also depression. Over time the harsh critic takes over and creates faulty thinking patterns.
So how do you deal with self-criticism?
Here are some simple steps:
1. You need a paradigm shift or an un-conditioning to start with. Recently I came across this beautiful affirmation ‘Don’t beat yourself with a bat, use a feather instead!’ What a simple thought to paradigm shift.
2. Awareness is the key factor here. Become aware of your inner critic. You do this by being present in the moment. The critic is always trapped either in the past causing you sadness or in the future, making you anxious.
3. Suspend judgment. Becoming aware of how you react in a given situation without judging yourself is the only way that the lesson becomes evident and action follows. Eckhart Tolle calls this ‘The power of now’. Instead of judging just become aware of what the moment is teaching you and the lesson will propel you forward.
4. Once you begin to practise the above steps you will notice a pattern of your thoughts. These thoughts will make you feel in a particular way. Note them down. It will take some practice, and it will make you aware of the frequency of your negative thoughts. How often in a day are you tearing yourself apart?
5. Ask yourself what is the origin of these thoughts and feelings: angry, sad, anxious, less than. Be compassionate to yourself. If a friend had to tell you that she/he is feeling sad or anxious or angry what would you tell them to do? Do the same for yourself! This is how you change the bat into a feather.
6. Learn to challenge the voice in your head. Tell it that you know where it’s coming from and you are no longer interested in its outcome. Examine the evidence. Look at all the earlier experiences you have had and the feedback of others. Write the pros and cons and look at why your critic is wrong.
7. The inner voice of your critic is always exaggerating. You need to replace those thoughts with realistic statements.
Self-awareness and evaluation should help you look at life realistically. Eventually, we all understand that there is ‘no perfect’ or ‘failure’. Everything in life are measures of perspective. So be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up, and if you do then please use a feather not a bat!
(Writer is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and the HOD of psychology at Carmel College for Women)