Self-nurturing means, above all, making a commitment to self-compassion. – Jennifer Louden
When does your internal critic show up? Is it when you spill your coffee? When you forget to buy the bread? When you speak too harshly to your children? Is it when you made the C when you were striving for the A, or is it when you didn’t get invited to the party?
There are many opportunities for the internal critic to sneak in and remind you of your faults, your failures and your frailties. For some, the internal critic appears with such regularity that it does its dirty work unnoticed. Anything we experience regularly tends to drop out of our awareness. We don’t usually notice our breathing, our eyes blinking or the sensation of the shoes on our feet because those things happen to us all the time.
Self-critical thinking can become the same way. We can have hundreds of self-critical thoughts each day without any conscious awareness. Those thoughts become as natural as breathing. Unfortunately, negative thinking is not as healthy as breathing.
While there are many forms of negative thinking, self-criticism is one of the most destructive. Examples might include the following thoughts: “I can’t do anything right.”; “I’m fat.”; “That was a stupid thing to say.”; “I won’t be able to do that.” The list could go on.
We develop the habit of self-criticism when we experience criticism or disapproval during childhood. We develop the belief that we are inadequate. We then interpret daily events to be evidence of our inadequacy.
Children are predisposed to believe they are inadequate because they actually are. Children can’t do things that adults can do. They do spill the milk. They can’t tie their shoes. They mess up when they try to do things.
As adults, we know that such inadequacy is normal. Children aren’t expected to be able to do things because they are children. We understand that they have to learn. Unfortunately, children don’t have that perspective. They often see their inability to do things as evidence of their inadequacy.
Good parents encourage their children when they mess up. They help the child understand that they have to learn to do new things, and that making mistakes is a normal part of learning. All parents criticize their children at times, and no parent is immune to the frustrations of raising children. But what about the parent who is overly critical? What about the parent who displays his frustration or disapproval whenever the child makes any mistake? Such parental behavior simply reinforces the child’s feelings of inadequacy. The internal critic is born.
Children are like sponges. If you place a sponge beside clear, pure water, it will soak that up. If you place it beside acid, it will soak that up as well. The sponge has no choice. It absorbs whatever it contacts. Children are no different. When they’re exposed to encouragement and love, they absorb that. When they’re exposed to criticism, neglect or abuse, they absorb that as well. They have no choice.
If self-critical statements are a prominent part of your internal vocabulary, you need to understand that your well-being is being hurt by those statements. You can’t have such thoughts without damaging your self-esteem and affecting your life choices. Self-critical thoughts often fuel depression and anxiety.
Pay attention to the content of your thoughts. When you notice self-critical self-talk, say to yourself, “I did it again.” Then remind yourself that such thoughts are self-destructive. Try to remind yourself where the habit came from. Ask yourself whether you would ever say such things to another person. Try to replace a self-critical statement with a supportive or neutral thought. It’s a gradual process, but you can change your thinking with persistent attention and effort.