When your best friend is upset and being hard on herself, you spring into action. You know just what to say to lift their spirits up—the positivity pours out. You could go on and on about their accomplishments, their strengths and just how goddam incredible they are (along with a big hug for good measure).
So, why is it so hard to do that for ourselves? Why don’t we think (let alone believe) all the wonderful things about ourselves that our best friends would say?
I know I certainly don’t. Any compassion turns right into judgement. The narrative that lives inside my head about myself is harsh, critical and kind of a bitch. I put myself down for any type of imperfection or failure, big or small—being late/not doing the dishes/laziness/not getting the job/not booking the client/etc.
It’s like I’m subconsciously shaming myself in the hope that next time I’ll be ‘better.’ Oh, here, why don’t you feel so incredibly bad about something that it forces you to change.
Does it work? Nope. For me, the negative, judgy, shame-on-you thoughts don’t change anything—I continue to be my late, lazy, forgetful self. And then I beat myself up about it again and again, falling into a pretty vicious cycle.
We are masters of self-judgement and pretty terrible at self-compassion.
It is so much easier to beat ourselves up about not reaching our higher-than-high standards instead of having compassion for where we are in life. Our world stresses the need to set these big, lofty goals and reach them at any cost—and if we don’t, well, we’re failures.
Why are we trying to always be this perfect version of ourselves? When did we sign a contract that said we should never fail, never be vulnerable, never do something unless you can do it perfectly on the first try? And when did we decide to be our own worst critics?
I’m. So. Over. It.
Does it really have to be this way? When you’re judging yourself and giving yourself crap, how do you turn those thoughts around into something positive?
With help from my counsellor, I’ve started to use a new exercise to have an honest conversation with myself and my critical thoughts. Here are three steps to start treating your inner critic like a person.
1. Create a character or persona around your inner critic
Talking to yourself is way more abstract than talking to your friends, which makes it more difficult. Our eyes can’t see inwards, so the conversation with the voice in your head feels less concrete than talking to someone who is right there in front of you.
A helpful first step is to create a character or persona around your inner critic. Give her a name—let’s say, Critical Crystal—and describe her personality. Who is she? What are her likes and dislikes? How does she act? What does she wear? What colour is her hair?
Once you have an idea of her, visualize her sitting across from you and stare right at her like she’s someone in the room. This whole thing might feel weird at first, but it’s an effective tool to start treating your critic like a person so you can actually talk to them.
2. Figure out what percentage your critic is of “you”
Now that you can see Critical Crystal as a person, remember that she’s not a representation of the complete “you.” She’s a part of you, but not the whole you.
What percentage of “you” is she, though? Is she 10 percent, maybe? Or closer to 50 percent? This step helps with the realization that when Critical Crystal starts to insert her opinion, you know that you can have other opinions about the same situation because she isn’t the whole “you.” She doesn’t have to take over. You can have other thoughts and opinions that aren’t hers.
It’s another abstract exercise, but stay with me on this.
3. Be curious about your critic and her motives
Now it’s time to have an honest conversation with Critical Crystal—to actually talk to her. Yes, out loud (even if that feels crazy). What is she saying to you? Start to respond with whatever comes to mind.
For me, my initial response is always to be angry or frustrated at my critic for telling me I’m not enough. “Why can’t you just support me instead of always judging?”
This is where curiosity comes in. Instead of being angry, sad or worried about Critical Crystal, can you ask her why she has such a hurtful voice? What are her motives for being the way she is? Maybe she’s afraid for you. Maybe she wants you to succeed and is doing what she thinks will help. She’s not perfect, either. She has her flaws, too.
When you ask your critic questions, think of how she would respond. What would she say back to you? By approaching your critical judgements and harsh inner voice with curiosity, you can start to understand Critical Crystal better. So, when she comes in to bring you down or tell you you’re not enough, you can ask, “Why? What’s going on?” instead of accepting her opinion as the truth.
When you listen and ask questions about why you’re judging yourself, why you’re putting yourself down, why you’re being so damn hard on yourself all the time, it helps to turn those negative thoughts into something different. Something you can work on. Something tangible that you can use for growth.
It builds self-compassion and opens you up to a new inner voice—one that isn’t critical, but curious. One that doesn’t beat you up for your mistakes or your missteps, but helps you learn from them and press onward.
But remember that all of this is hard work—and it takes time.
The relationship with yourself is always a journey. My Critical Crystal pops up all the time with her very loud, very convincing voice. And sometimes she wins (well, a lot of the time). But sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes I find a way to talk to her, to ask questions, to wonder why she’s saying the things she is.
And those little steps you can take towards more self-compassion, more self-understanding, more self-love, is a gigantic win. No matter how small the steps are, each one of them counts.
And hopefully, you’ll start to treat yourself like you do your best friends—with kindness and positivity, lifting yourself up when you need it most.