by Dr. Menije Boduryan, Psy.d.
It has been one of those long weeks where nothing seems to go right. For every problem you solve at work, another one pops up. The home feels like a war zone. The kids don’t listen and bicker. You and your partner don’t remember the last time you felt connected. You start to wonder: Is there anything in my life going well?
When things don’t go as planned, who do you often blame? How often do you beat yourself up for any mistake, imperfection, or flaw? At the end of the day, when half of your to-do list is untouched, how do you respond? Do you pay attention to your inner dialogue? Do you think you are your own worst enemy?
The fact is when things get stressful, we often need to know whose fault it is? And more often than not, we take it out on ourselves. Instead of being understanding and patient with ourselves, we start to beat ourselves up for any imperfection. Instead of being a good friend to ourselves during tough times, we become our worst enemy.
Our inner dialogue tends to catastrophize every negative incident, blowing it out of proportion, and acting like it is the end of the world. The inner critic likes to highlight all the negatives while ignoring all the positives. As if going through a hard time wasn’t enough, now we make it harder by our own negative self-talk.
The more you feel stressed and overwhelmed, the more you think negatively.
The year 2020 has been nothing but stressful. During stressful times, your inner critic has a standard response to stress. It points out all that you are doing wrong, all that is missing, or all the ways that you are behind. The inner critic says, “You are inadequate, incompetent, and not enough.”
The inner critic looks for evidence to prove its point by comparing and contrasting you to others. The inner critic has only one agenda and that is to criticize you and make you feel bad about yourself. So when it is time to compare and contrast, it is no surprise that it compares your worst to someone else’s best. This negativity bias may feel involuntary because it is part of our survival mechanism. It is known that our fear system is wired to look out for any threat and identify anything that can put us in danger, which sometimes includes our shortcomings and weaknesses.
There is also the false belief that others are just handling the stress of this year better than you. The common reason for making such a conclusion is that when we are under stress, we tend to isolate and think, “it’s only happening to me.” When we feel overwhelmed and stressed, our emotions can alter our perception where we come to believe that it’s just us. This creates a vicious cycle because the more you think you are alone, the more you feel lonely.
The inner critic also likes to review all your past and present decisions to find more ways to make you feel small. The “should have, would have, could have” thoughts get louder when you second-guess every decision you make. You start to think, “only if I made a different decision, this all wouldn’t have happened.” When your inner critic gets more opinionated, you start to feel more stuck, helpless and overwhelmed during the quarantine. But the inner critic is here to play because you reinforce it. Here is what I mean…
Let’s debunk the myths around negative self-talk:
1) Negative self-talk is the “real-talk”: most people have come to believe that they must say it as it is if they want to be real and honest with themselves. They forget that there is a difference between criticism and constructive feedback. Talking to yourself in a mean, belittling, and shaming way is not the same as being real or honest with yourself. It is simply being your own bully. At first, when you start to talk to yourself in a kind way, it may feel “too soft,” but that’s only because you are not used to it. You will come to find out that you can take responsibility while also being kind and forgiving towards yourself.
2) “Negative self-talk keeps me motivated”: Imagine a scene from a movie, where there is the mean coach who is standing on the side of the field, yelling at you, calling out all your flaws, and screaming how you are just not enough. The coach acts like it is there to motivate you and just push you harder. But by the end of the movie, you realize that it is never the mean coach that gets the spotlight. Your inner critic has taken over the role of a mean coach who is always shouting at you from the side of the field. When you are both the coach and the athlete, you realize that you have the power to change the language of that coach. You can make sure that the “coach” who is standing on the side of the field is supporting you, encouraging you, and guiding you to do your best.
3) “Negative self-talk is all I know, I can’t change it”: it is true that for some of us, the inner critic has been around for a while. It’s like that guest that came over uninvited and won’t just leave. But what is getting in the way from you managing your inner critic is believing that you can not. No matter how long you have been criticizing yourself and beating yourself up for any mistake, you can turn it around. You might want to start with uncovering how you got to develop your inner critic, specifically, when and where you started to give it power? With this new insight about your past, you can find the power to heal and repair your relationship with yourself. The truth is the way you talk to yourself is not helping you. It is hurting you. The way you talk to yourself is getting in the way of your way. It is time to tame the inner critic.
3-steps to managing your inner-critic:
1) Challenge & reframe your inner-critic: The first step is to start paying attention to your self-talk. Since our thoughts are a big part of our internal experience, it is very normal and common to have our thoughts go by unnoticed. By being more mindful of your thoughts, you can start to observe them more carefully.
Once you pay attention to your thoughts, you need to decide whether a thought is healthy or unhealthy for you. It is recommended to not split thoughts as good vs. bad, as it can add more judgment. It is better to identify thoughts healthy vs. unhealthy, helpful vs. hurtful, or rational vs. irrational.
Once you identify the thought as unhealthy, then you would need to commit to reframing it. Often the act of reframing means changing the words around so that you have a more balanced perspective. When you change the words, you would need to pick ones that are kinder, more understanding, and forgiving.
If you feel stuck, try talking to yourself like you talk to someone you love. It looks like this: imagine someone you love is having the same negative thought you just had, e.g. “I am behind, I am never going to catch up.” Then imagine how you would respond to the one you love. How would you help them feel better? How would you help them feel confident in themselves so they don’t give up? How would you help them look at themselves differently so they are not beating themselves up? Once you come up with your response to your loved one, you then say it to yourself.
Including mantras and positive affirmations can be very helpful. One of my ultimate favorites is from Dr. Brene Brown, who is quoted to say “no matter what gets done, and what is left undone, I am enough.” You can use this positive affirmation at the beginning of your day to set the tone and intention for the day. You can also alter it at the end of the day by saying to yourself, “no matter what got done, and what was left undone, I am enough.”
2) Reorder your priorities: While it is important to change our inner dialogue and aim to have less self-critical thoughts, it is equally important to identify what triggered those thoughts. We know that external events act as the antecedent to our inner thoughts. Maybe your inner critic is getting loud because there is a lot on your plate. When you wake up in the morning and think to yourself, “I can only get half of these things done,” then you are more likely to think, “I am such a failure” or “something is wrong with me.” But maybe the problem is not with you but it is with your environment. When you recognize how things in your environment, tasks, and people amplify your inner critic, then you can start to set limits and set boundaries. Take a look at your daily to-do list and find ways to delegate or simply remove from the list for a later time. Make sure to surround yourself with people that support and lift you up.
3) Make time for you: You can manage your negative thoughts by engaging in pleasurable activities, which can help you keep a balanced perspective. Sometimes, you just can’t shake off a thought. Sometimes, there isn’t much you can do to resolve a situation. How do you have closure from a tough day? How do you give yourself permission to rest and be, instead of doing? In your actions, you can show yourself that you are deserving of resting and that you have done enough. You are worthy of feeling calm. The inner critic tries to ruminate and constantly worry about things that are incomplete or just going wrong. Instead of falling for its trap, you can learn to let those thoughts be and engage in pleasurable activities. These activities can’t make the negative thoughts disappear, but it sure can lower the volume. Because we can’t always choose every thought we have, but we can choose how we want to respond to those negative thoughts.
Following these steps may take some time and practice, but it will be worth the effort when it changes the relationship you have with yourself. When you have more loving, understanding, and kind inner dialogue, you will start to feel a true sense of happiness, fulfillment, and peace.
About the Author
Dr. Menije is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. When she works with her clients individually or as couples, the goal is to help you break free from the vicious cycle of anxiety and judgment and instead build a true sense of trust in yourself. The practice is currently accepting new clients and offers online therapy. If you like to learn more about personal growth and anxiety management, join the 5-day challenge.