Many of us say mean things to ourselves on a regular basis. I’m such an idiot. I’m such a failure. I can’t believe I made such a stupid mistake! Oh, wait, yes, I can. I can’t believe I get anxious over the smallest things. Why can’t I do anything right?
We berate ourselves constantly. The negative dialogue becomes so automatic we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It becomes the soundtrack to our lives, insults playing in the background between breakfast and lunch, during work and all the way to bedtime.
“A lady who attended one of my workshops said that if she called other people by the names she called herself a lot of the time, she’d have a criminal record by now,” writes David R. Hamilton, Ph.D, in his newest book I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love.
You probably can relate. You probably wouldn’t use the same cruel words you use to talk to yourself to talk to others. The good news is that you can work through self-criticism. You can minimize it. You can learn to embrace yourself.
Here are three valuable strategies from Hamilton’s I Heart Me, which may help.
1. Turn to self-compassionate statements.
According to Hamilton, make a list of times you’ve shown someone kindness, patience or gentleness. Make a second list of your positive qualities, skills and achievements. Make a third list of times you showed courage or coped with difficult circumstances. Make a list about your happiest memories.
Each time you catch yourself being self-critical, take a deep breath. Then say or visualize one or more of the things from your lists.
As Hamilton writes, it might seem very unlikely that doing this can ease self-criticism. But, he notes, “If you’re really good at self-criticism, you got there through practice too. You’re basically just learning to change what you’re practicing.”
2. Listen to your most compassionate self.
Hamilton calls this exercise listening to your “inner Buddha” or your “wisest, most compassionate self.”
Take a piece of paper and three different colored pens. You’ll use each pen for your inner critic; the criticized (the part of you that feels hurt); and your inner Buddha.
Pick something you normally criticize yourself for. Take the pen of your inner critic, and write down everything they say. Then take the pen of the criticized, and write about how you feel when you’re being criticized. If your inner critic wants to respond, allow that.
If you feel like it, have a back-and-forth conversation between your critic and the criticized.
When you’re ready, take the pen of your compassionate self. “As the kindest, gentlest, most loving and compassionate aspect of your soul, what would it say? How would it say it? Would it address you? The critic? Both?”
Again, you can have a dialogue among all three parts. Keep going until you feel like everything has been said. But make sure your compassionate self has the last word.
Hamilton also suggests writing a letter to yourself from your compassionate self. Mail it. This way you receive a reminder of your wisdom in a day or two.
3. Separate your identity from your shame.
We tend to mix up our behavior with our identity. We start to identify ourselves by the things we’re ashamed of. As Hamilton writes, “I did something bad” becomes “I am bad,” I did something stupid” becomes “I am stupid.”
This is what shame does. And it fuels self-criticism.
But Hamilton notes “there’s a world of difference separating ‘I did,’ ‘I have’ and ‘I was’ from ‘I am.'”
In this exercise, he suggests making a list of what you feel ashamed about. Now rewrite each sentence using these five parts:
- “It’s not that I am _________ [insert shamer].”
- “The truth is that __________ [what you did or how you perceived yourself].”
- “That doesn’t mean that I am ____________ [insert shamer].”
- “In fact __________ [insert a positive].”
- “I am __________ [insert the opposite].”
Here’s an example from the book:
“ It’s not that I am stupid.  The truth is that I’ve just done a few things some people might call stupid.  That doesn’t mean that I’m fundamentally stupid.  In fact, I’ve also made some intelligent choices in my life.  I am intelligent.”
Chipping away at your self-criticism may seem insurmountable. But you can lessen the pain and the insults one strategy, one practice at a time. If the above exercises don’t resonate with you, don’t stop here. Look for other practices. Look for other insights.
You don’t need to resign yourself to days filled with the deafening sounds of self-criticism. Because no matter how bad it is now, it can get better. It does get better — whether that’s through practicing exercises or working with a therapist.