Most of us have an inner voice that has an opinion about everything we do. Whether self-generated or the result of external messages received throughout our lives, this internal voice, or critic, shapes how we view ourselves and how we relate to the world. If the critic is mostly kind and supportive, it can be a source of inner strength.
On the other hand, a frequently negative, harsh critic can be detrimental to our emotional and psychological health. In fact, negative self-talk is a common culprit in many cases of clinical depression and is certainly a significant contributor to low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness.
If a harsh inner critic is something you grapple with, you’re not alone. And like others, you can transform negative thought patterns. With a bit of introspection and by practicing the following steps, you can change your self-talk from negative to supportive.
Identify self-defeating thoughts
Awareness is the prerequisite to all change. Being able to recognize your inner critic in action is half the battle. Let’s look at an example from my practice. I once worked with a client who was struggling with anxiety that began shortly after he was passed over for a promotion. Despite having an impressive career history, this one event triggered an avalanche of self-criticism, which led to what he described as “debilitating” anxiety.
Some of the negative thoughts that he was able to identify included, “I didn’t get the promotion I wanted, therefore, I’m not good at my job.” This led to: “I’m not that smart and now everyone knows it. My boss hates me and my colleagues don’t respect me. They’ll realize they made a mistake hiring me; they’ll fire me and I’ll never move ahead in my career.” And down the rabbit hole he went. Once he was able to recognize the toxic thoughts he was carrying around with him, he was able to move on to the next step.
Find the root
It’s important to understand how your negative thought patterns emerged. Doing so will help you gain insight into your core self-beliefs, as one perpetuates the other. Simply acknowledging that your thoughts are not truths is a start. But knowing where they originated from will help you differentiate between fact and thought.
As I learned more about my client, it became apparent that he had always succeeded in all aspects of his life. This was the first time he had “failed” at something, as he framed it. He learned early in his life that by winning – whether in sports, school, or socially – he was valuable. He had never learned that it’s possible to fail and still be a winner. His self-worth was built entirely on external accomplishments, making for a shaky foundation, given the limits to what we can control in our outer environment.
Ask yourself what deeply ingrained beliefs you’re holding onto that are getting in your way. By getting to know and understand your negative thought patterns, you are one step closer to defeating them.
Write your thoughts down
Many people find it helpful to write down negative thoughts as they arise as a way to externalize the internalized. When we expose the thing we fear, it often loses its power over us or takes the scare out of it. By exposing your negative thoughts to the light of day, you can begin to see them for what they are – simply thoughts. Journaling is a wonderful exercise for this. It’s a way to visually separate thoughts from their disguise as reality. Some people even find it helpful to give their critic a name.
Challenge your thoughts
Once you begin to see your thoughts as just thoughts, you can begin to challenge their validity and evaluate them more realistically. Ask yourself, Is there is any hard evidence to support my critic’s harsh evaluation? (Note: a strong feeling or your own opinion does not count as hard evidence.) In each moment of self-awareness, remind yourself that thoughts are not facts. Think of it like the golden rule in reverse. If you find yourself thinking things you would never say to someone you care about, you shouldn’t be saying them to yourself, either.
In my client’s case, he wove an entirely fictitious narrative based on one disappointing event. His track record of excellent performance reviews and several promotions proved his negative self-beliefs to be false. This and other evidence allowed him to challenge the narrative and ultimately rewrite the script, which is the final step.
Once you have revealed the distortion in your thought patterns, you can begin to replace them with more supportive – and realistic – evaluations. Unable to produce any evidence to prove his negative thoughts, my client then asked himself what evidence there was against those thoughts.
Given his previous job experiences and the positive feedback he frequently received from colleagues, it soon became clear that all of his negative judgments and harsh criticism had no basis in reality. “I will never move ahead in my career” soon became “I have been moving ahead in my career since I started working. I have always received positive feedback. This is one setback and it will only help me grow and become better at my job.”
Train your inner critic
Think of your inner critic as a puppy who hasn’t yet been trained. It means well. It just doesn’t know any better. The good news is that this dog can learn new tricks. By diligently working with these steps, you can change your internal voice from critical to supportive. You can do this work on your own or with the help of an experienced therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a highly effective modality for correcting distorted thought patterns.
Our thoughts can have tremendous power over us – if we allow them to. If our internal voice is mostly positive and supportive, our sense of self and emotional well-being will be, too. By standing up to your inner critic in a gentle and loving way, you’ll begin to improve the quality of your most important relationship: your relationship with yourself.
This article was originally published on LyraHealth