What do you feel in your body? Usually, when we have negative thoughts about ourselves, our limbic system can get over-activated. Stress chemical pour into our bloodstream. We don't just think negative thoughts, we feel them. That crummy feeling in your body--tension, pain in the head or back, speeding heart, and shallow breathing--all of these can be signs of an over-active inner critic that finds fault with everything. Sometimes we don't internalize the negative feelings of our inner critic because we are too busy projecting criticism outwardly onto other people.
I just read a blog of advice about dealing with low self esteem and a high inner critic. It suggested that you should wage war against the inner critic and attack it. Stand up to it like a bully, it said, and you will feel better. I want to discuss a better way to raise your self-esteem that takes a fraction of the effort needed to attack yourself and can really help your relationship as an extra bonus.
A Mind Full of Chatter
Let's say you just did something that is causing you to have a lot of unpleasant internal chatter and you are not at peace with yourself. Or maybe your partner just did something and you are having a lot of negative thoughts about yourself. "Everyone makes mistakes," is the common refrain about being easy on yourself, but for whatever reason you're not so sure about that right now.
This hyper-vigilance and bent on the assumption that everything is a problem waiting to happen can do a lot of harm to relationships. Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. (Minding The Body, Mending The Mind) refers to this as becoming an "advanced worrier." This scenario is described perfectly by Mark Twain who said "I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened." Zig Ziglar, the famous motivational speaker, says "Worry is a misuse of the imagination."
How to Address Negative Thoughts Compassionately
So what can you do if you want to have more power over your inner critic and the feelings in your body that may go with it?
Here are five things you can do to begin to address low self-esteem:
1) See what happens if you don't resist. Notice the qualities of your critical thoughts more without trying to change it. Journal what your inner critic is telling you. Voice what it is telling you to someone that knows how to listen without an agenda. This can take away some of intensity of the critic, especially the negative energy of the self-criticism stored in your body. But this can also amplify things more than usual at first, so be prepared to stand back and detach yourself from these thoughts almost as though they are some alien phenomenon that you are studying for the first time.
2) Be curious about how your inner critic is really trying to help you. It may be misplaced or poorly timed but imagine what you would feel if you weren't even capable of getting sucked into the negative feedback tape of criticism. A lot of people tell me that they imagine (or have actually experienced) severe depression, hopelessness, or overwhelming sadness and grief if the constant chatter of self-loathing stops. It may seem odd, but usually a severe inner critic is the way your psyche tries to blunt an injury that may be deeper than otherwise felt. This is often leads to the realization that the inner critic is not something you want to dispose of in haste without knowing how you will address what is behind it.
3) Accept the critic as a part of you that is worthy of existing--don't criticize the critic! Have you ever watched former American Idol judge Simon Cowell and his scathing, pull-no-punches critique of singers on the show? People who challenge him directly usually get more of what they don't want from him. But as tough as it is to swallow, those that politely acknowledge that he has a point can clear more room for themselves to get free of his relentless attacks. Treat yourself the same way. Your inner critic might have a point. Acknowledge it, but you don't have to let it make the final decision about things.
4) Do three things that will directly support the underlying value that the critic is protecting. For example, maybe your self-critical voice tells you that you will probably never do your job like so-and-so who gets all the credit and seems to have great ideas. This an attempt by your psyche to motivate you and avoid shame or being left out but it easily results in feeling immediate shame or hopelessness just by keeping your focus on someone else. If that critical energy is to be productive and metabolized, it needs to accept where you are and who you are. Let self-criticism have the more supportive role of pointing our possibilities only when they are not distracting to the path you are already on.
5) Affirm your integrity over your achievements. If you are already know you are acting with integrity to build on what you value the most, be direct and firm with your inner critic. By definition, our critical parts of us are impulsive and impatient and won't believe in anything that isn't already happening. But you are more advanced intellectually than your inner critic. Try saying to your critic, "I'm working on this in a different way than usual. Trust me with this, I don't need to keep hearing you tell me what I already know," or "I'm taking a step in the right direction even if it feels like a step backwards...I'll get there eventually."
When you you do these things it means you are starting to build a relationship with the inner critic and you are improving the layout of things inside your mind. Unlike trying to fight your inner critic, ounce for ounce, these are ways to address the underlying reason the critic is there in the first place. After all, we all need a healthy amount of self-criticism and when we have this we can be more successful than if we were able to eradicate self-judgment entirely. By engaging--instead of fighting--with your negative thoughts, you are being responsive to yourself and exercising good overall self-care.
Now it's your turn, tell me what has worked for you?