Many people believe being one’s own private drill sergeant is the best way to be a good person. Countless advertisements and workout videos have taught us that if we berate ourselves enough, we’ll get up off the couch and be more productive. If we break down, overeat, or underperform, many of us believe it is helpful to call ourselves “maggot” and “lazy piece of @#$%.”
Most of the time when we’re being hard on ourselves, it’s in service of this misguided belief that self-criticism is the fastest road to self-improvement. We believe the meaner we are, the more we’ll want to obey. We suspect the opposite must also be true: if we’re kind and loving to ourselves, that will be an excuse to nap all day or spend countless hours playing video games.
It’s part of our national history to believe in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” method of motivation. Yet lately we have tempered our child-rearing techniques, teaching via rewards instead of punishments. For ourselves, however, we most often still choose the whip over the carrot. Client after client sits in my office and tells me how, in an attempt to lose weight, they tell themselves they look like a whale. While trying to be a better parent, they scare themselves with thoughts that they’re destroying their kids. Hoping to get ahead at work, they call themselves useless or pathetic.
Empathy is often a better motivator than cruelty.To be clear, this behavior doesn’t work. Imagine a child who wants to learn math, but the teacher constantly humiliates them, calls them stupid, and points out their mistakes. Most people under this kind of pressure will crack, either agreeing they must be incapable, or rebelling and refusing to try. No one has ever felt energized and ready to learn after being yelled at for their failures.
Instead, the key is to be gentle with yourself. Allowing for failure can give you enough energy to get back up after you stumble and start over again. If you want to cultivate perseverance, resilience, and grit, then you can reinforce these characteristics with praise. Support can create encouragement so you actually want to continue the difficult work of self-improvement.
16 Strategies to Change Your Relationship With Yourself
If you find yourself stuck subscribing to the philosophy of punishment-as-motivation, here are some quick strategies for changing this ingrained habit.
1. Thought stopping: One of the simplest ways to block a thought is to put your mind to stopping it. Picture a red stop sign, yell stop (whether out loud or in your head), stomp your foot, or imagine yourself stomping. This action captures your attention. It reminds you the thought is unhelpful and you’re trying to change it. Done consistently, thought stopping creates a new habit in exchange for the old, mindless pattern of self-criticism.
2. Thought replacing: Once you’ve stopped the thought, it’s time to replace it. Come up with a different statement, one that is actually motivating. Instead of “I’m so dumb,” perhaps you could say “I’m committed to reading more,” making it your mantra until it has power. Write the new phrase on sticky notes and place them where you’ll see the notes daily.
3. Compassion: Empathy is often a better motivator than cruelty. The phrase “I’m trying hard and want to succeed” can build energy, while “I’m no good and never will be” will likely drain it. You may feel sappy telling yourself warm and loving statements, but after you get past the discomfort, you may be shocked at how good you feel.
4. Being realistic: If you strongly believe you must look hard at your faults, go for it. Just do it in a balanced way. Criticism tends to work best when it is constructive. Decide what you want to change and why (“I need to be healthier.”). Next, own your faults or past mistakes (“I haven’t exercised enough in the past.”). Then move back to a realistic point of view (“I’m working on feeling healthier, so I’ll do one active thing today.”). Constructive criticism can be difficult to do, especially if you have a history of perfectionism, so you may wish get help from a trustworthy individual.
5. Thought labeling: Some thoughts are distorted and can’t be trusted. Sometimes by labeling these thoughts as the cognitive distortions they are, you can take away their power. You can find a list of common cognitive distortions here. Which are your go-tos?
6. Thought observation: “Observing” thoughts means sitting back and watching without judgment. It is a key component of mindfulness. Observation sounds simple, but it can pack a big punch. Gaining some objective distance often waters down the harshness of our critical thoughts. Thought observation often involves a simple meditation in which you relax, breathe, and acknowledge your feelings and thoughts without trying to fix them.
7. Emotion labeling: Reframe automatic thoughts as what they really are: reactions to a feeling, usually fear or anger. So “I’m such a loser for not getting an A on my test” is, in reality, “I’m scared I’m not lovable unless I am a top achiever.” Try to figure out the feeling under the statement to expose it for what it really is: a vulnerability that needs to be soothed.
8. Being kind to that emotion: Now do the soothing. It can be with words, by talking to yourself about how it’s okay to be scared, or sad, or imperfect. You could try talking things through with someone you trust. You can also sooth yourself by resting more or doing an activity that feels nice. Boosting your confidence and your mood can help energize you to do what you really want.
9. Being kind to the critical voice: Now move that wonderful compassionate approach to the inner critic itself. There’s a judge in your mind who thinks it knows all the answers, who has been taught to be cruel. Tell that voice you love and understand it, and watch what happens—many times it shrinks under the weight of all that kindness.
10. Inner child work: Imagine one the first times you told yourself, or were told from someone else, the negative message in question. Who first taught you that eating an extra cookie was repulsive? If you can picture your younger self getting that message, feeling hurt and shame, then you can imagine holding that kid, that part of you, and comforting them.
11. Doing something pleasant: Don’t underestimate the power of distracting your mind. Performing an activity that you enjoy has multiple benefits. It’s a way of being kind to yourself with actions instead of words. It can keep your mind too busy to continue attacking yourself. Plus, it may increase endorphins and other stress-relieving hormones.
12. Talking to someone who likes you: Social interaction is often a key component of well-being. We tend to be influenced by other people’s moods. If your friend is judgmental, you may struggle to curb your own inner critic. But if your friend is energetic and upbeat, you may be inspired toward change. Having a conversation with someone who feels positively about you can help you feel better about yourself.
13. Finding support: Friends aren’t the only—and sometimes aren’t the best—means of support. Often people feel safer talking to someone with no personal ties to them. Some people find it easier to be honest and vulnerable with someone they don’t have to see over dinner. They may turn to an individual therapist, a phone support line, or a support group.
14. Making a list of your achievements or good qualities: Self-esteem building can be as simple as reciting the qualities you like about yourself. When we get in the habit of believing we need to highlight our faults to stay on top of them, we weaken the “muscle” that reinforces our positive attributes. Start by writing down all the things you and others like about you. Put the list near your bed to look at each night or morning. For more tips, read my earlier blog post on self-esteem.
15. Taking one step in the right direction: If you truly believe there’s something you should be doing but aren’t, maybe the scope of the undertaking is overwhelming you. Try starting with a bite-sized piece of your plan. For instance, if you want to get a college degree, but a BA program seems too expensive and time-consuming, start by taking one class. If that still sounds intimidating, you could buy a book in one subject. Or talk to one college counselor. Any movement in the direction you want to go can feel like momentum toward your larger goal.
16. Accepting failure: Finally, get way, way more accepting of your limitations. It’s utterly counterintuitive, but success often requires being okay with mistakes. Giving yourself permission to fail does not mean you’re okay with not trying and not achieving. It means you’re realistic that trying sometimes means screwing up.
Any one of these techniques is its own first step to an approach that’s more compassionate and realistic. Give yourself the space to experiment, with one goal in mind: switching from being your own worst critic to your biggest fan.
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