Today I want to talk about something that I’m sure will hit close to home for many of you.
We are our own worst critics. In our thoughts, our words, and our actions. We judge ourselves way more harshly than anyone else we care about. And we hold ourselves to unrealistic standards. It’s so automatic that we hardly even recognize we’re doing it.
But the negative consequences of the voices inside our heads can be far-reaching. They can hold us back from accomplishing our goals, stepping out of our comfort zones, and living to our fullest potential.
So how can we overcome the pervasive habit of negative self-talk?
Step one – learn to recognize it
It’s all about becoming self-aware. Starting to pay more attention to that inner voice, really listening to the way we talk to ourselves. Catching our selves in the act, if you will.
This can take practice. Some of you may need no help at all in this department. (“Um, yeah … I talk to myself this way all the time, and it makes me miserable. But how do I stop it?”) If this is you, stay tuned.
If, on the other hand, you need a little help, start with some obvious, but not too emotionally charged situations. You drop a glass and it breaks. You forget your lunch on your kitchen counter. You shrink a sweater in the laundry.
Lots of people might identify the first emotion here as being pissed at themselves for doing something stupid. But the undercurrent is “I’m so clumsy”, “I have a crap memory”, “I can’t do anything right”, or worse “I’m incompetent”. These are some pretty overarching judgments we’re making.
One isolated event might not amount to much, but with repetition, our brains start to believe the messages they’re receiving.
What if the tables were turned?
Think about the above scenarios. If it were your best friend that did some of those things, would you have the same automatic thoughts? Would you apply the same judgments? Chances are, the answer is no.
If she got frustrated and blurted out, “I’m so incompetent!”, what would your response be?
If this doesn’t resonate with you, what about a younger version of yourself? If 6-year-old you were the perpetrator of these awful acts, how would you respond?
For any given scenario, these are great questions to start asking yourself to notice if you’re being overly self-critical. What if this happened to my best friend? Or to a younger version of me? Are the judgments I’m making right now out of keeping with that?
How to break the cycle
Okay, so you’re learning to recognize the negative self-talk. (And it’s pretty freakin’ scary.) Now what?
There are a few key questions I like to use when coaching a client (or myself) around self-defeating thoughts.
To help demonstrate each of these, I’m going to walk you through a scenario. Let’s say Melanie* struggles with social anxiety. She identifies as an introvert. She’s naturally on the quiet side, and despite some practice, doesn’t feel terribly confident interacting with new or unfamiliar people.
The first thing I like to ask to get to the heart of the self-criticism is…
What’s the story you’re telling yourself?
This question holds a lot of power. It helps you to take ownership of your thoughts and really dig deep into the message. It also implies a choice.
Try it out. “The story I’m telling myself is … “
For Melanie: “The story I’m telling myself is … I’m socially awkward, other people can sense my discomfort, and, they might be nice to me, but mainly because they feel bad for me.”
Now walk through this one …
How true is that (story) really?
Your gut reaction here might be, “well of course it’s true!”. Maybe you’re calling to mind certain examples from your past that you feel prove the thought. Things you’ve dwelt on, consciously or otherwise. But really stop and think about it – might it not be true? Or at least not entirely true?
Again, I challenge you to use the best friend technique here. If you remove yourself from the equation, now how true do you think it is?
Sometimes it’s also helpful to use a 1 to 10 scale. If true or not true seems too black and white, what about … how true is this on a scale from 1 to 10?
For Melanie: her gut instinct might be a 9/10, but when she really gives it some thought she says maybe it’s more like a 5/10. That’s good. We’re moving the needle. Baby steps.
Just two more questions.
What is an alternate possibility?
Here you’re trying to drum up one or more thoughts that counter the story you’re telling yourself. They may be just slightly different, or maybe radically different. See how far you can go with it.
For Melanie: “An alternate possibility is that I’m feeling self-conscious, but no one else even notices, and they genuinely like me for me.”
Or, if we really want to push the boundaries: “I’m socially very capable. I make an excellent impression on new people and I’m able to genuinely connect with them!”
What evidence do you have to the contrary?
If the alternate possibility you’ve come up with still feels a little inauthentic, try identifying some concrete instances from your life that directly disprove your story.
For Melanie: She meets new people every day as part of her job and typically gets excellent feedback from clients and coworkers alike. She attended that conference with people that were barely acquaintances and ended up having a really good time. Etc. Etc.
I’m confident you can come up with some tangible examples.
One more key thing now that you’ve learned how to recognize and work through your self-criticisms.
Try not to create negative self-talk about your negative self-talk!
Yes, this sh*t runs deep, LOL. Examples:
“Why do I think so negatively?!” “I should be able to control it!” “What kind of example am I setting for my kids?!” I’ve been there.
Ever heard the phrase, “Don’t should all over yourself?”
You gotta start somewhere. And giving yourself some grace in this process is paramount.
Anyhow, that’s all for today folks. I hope you were able to take something away from this post, and maybe start applying it in your own life.
And if you think it might help someone you know, please share!
*Melanie is a fictional character, that may or may not be based on my own personal experience =P