We judge ourselves for so many things. Maybe it’s what we look like. Maybe it’s the size of our thighs. Maybe it’s the mistakes we made. A decade ago. Maybe it’s the small errors we make at work from time to time. Maybe we see ourselves as weak. Not good enough. Inadequate. Deeply flawed.
Maybe you often think in shoulds. I should be over this by now. I shouldn’t be anxious about that. Psychologist Karin Lawson, PsyD, regularly hears these kinds of statements from her clients. They also judge themselves for their emotions. Their sadness. Anger. Fear. “I hear clients judge themselves for just feeling, for being human.” After all, feeling a range of emotions is part of our humanity.
“[N]egative or overly critical self-judgment has the high potential to lead to crippling self-doubt and stagnation,” said Lisa Richberg, LMHC, a therapist who specializes in co-morbid eating disorders and addictions, anxiety and depression. “This stagnation has the potential to prevent us from taking action, learning new things and accepting ourselves as we are.”
Thankfully, this is something you can work on. Below, Richberg and Lawson shared their strategies for judging yourself less.
Pinpoint your negative self-judgments.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize how much we’re judging ourselves. It’s just so automatic. It’s the background noise we wake up to. It’s the background noise that plays as we go about our days—and follows us into bed. This is why it’s important to be mindful of our thoughts.
Richberg suggested activities such as yoga and meditation for sharpening your attention. Take your time and use as many senses as possible while you eat, shower and perform other daily activities, she said. Consider these questions: “What do you notice? What do you feel during these activities? Where do you feel them in your body? Are you noticing negative messages or self-talk while engaging in these activities?”
She also suggested journaling about your thoughts and emotions as they arise. This helps to deepen our understanding of what lies beneath.
When you use “should” in your statements, that’s another indicator that you’re judging yourself, Lawson said. For instance, I should have accomplished more today at work. I should be stronger. I should know how to do this by now. I should be better. I shouldn’t need this much sleep. I should be smarter, thinner, sexier, more muscular, more creative.
Play with your thoughts.
When it comes to “should” statements, play with exceptions to the rule or the expectation, Lawson said. For instance, take the thought: “I should have accomplished more today at work.” According to Lawson, you might ask yourself: What other factors influenced my work day? Did I sleep enough? Did I have a tough time concentrating for some reason? You might change the thought to: “I wish I had accomplished more today at work. I wonder what got in the way?”
Maybe you were constantly interrupted. Maybe a personal situation has been on your mind. Maybe you feel underappreciated at work, which is upsetting you. Maybe you had less energy than usual. Maybe it’s a combination. “We need to acknowledge what our part is rather than shouldering all the shoulds, as if we could possibly be responsible for every single piece of the puzzle.”
Richberg works with clients on accepting their self-critical thoughts, exploring their value and replacing them with more neutral or positive self-talk. For instance, she might ask clients: “What does this thought do for you? How does the negative or overly critical judgment help you?”
More often than not, these self-judgments don’t support what the client is working toward, which is less anxiety, depression and suffering. Which is why they “come up with alternative self-talk that is more beneficial for the client’s health and recovery.”
For instance, a client might say, “I don’t like the size of my legs.” They might work on replacing that thought with: “My legs allow me to run and move my body, and do many things throughout the day that I often take for granted.” It’s important to practice the new statement, which you can do during meditation, in the form of a mantra or by journaling about it, she said.
“In the end it almost doesn’t matter whether the initial critical thought is true or not; it’s about shifting the focus toward helpful versus hurtful ways of thinking.”
Visualize “the crazy train.”
In her sessions with clients, Richberg also talks about “the crazy train.” It’s plastered with negative self-judgments and roars by us. “We have the choice to jump on the train and be taken along on that harrowing ride, or to allow the train to pass, and keep moving forward in our lives and in our recovery.”
We can notice these negative self-judgments for what they are: “Just thoughts.” We have thousands of thoughts each day. We have the choice to follow these thoughts (and be ruled by them) or to simply notice them and refocus on something else.
Try this experiment.
In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle suggests this challenge (to try over and over again): “Can you look without the voice in your head commenting, drawing conclusions, comparing or trying to figure something out?” For instance, you might look at anything—a tree, car, ant, your hand, the couch—in this way, Lawson said. “It’s a practice in observing without getting wrapped up in preferences, criticalness or labeling as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’” And it takes practice. Be compassionate with yourself as you try it out.
Whenever Lawson’s clients express a strong self-critical judgment, she asks: “Who’s saying that?” or “Whose voice is that?” Because those harsh statements that you presume are ultimate truths are just “learned subjective judgments.” They are beliefs we might borrow from society or childhood bullies or our parents or someone else close to us.
Give yourself the space to reconsider destructive self-judgments—and to focus on what truly supports you in building a healthy relationship with yourself and a fulfilling life overall.