From inner criticism to self-compassion
Negative self-beliefs are internalised judgements about who we are that we perceive to be to true, which result in inner thoughts and scripts that we repeatedly tell ourselves. Beliefs about oneself are a consequence of our experiences, and come from the messages we internalised growing up; from family and influential people in our lives, and from our society. These messages become part of our self-image, of what we think and believe about ourselves. When these are linked to shame experiences, they can often have a very critical tone.
You may recognise thoughts like:
- 'I’m not good enough'
- 'I’m not attractive enough'
- 'I'm not smart enough'
- 'I'm not skinny enough'
- 'I'm not social enough'
- 'I don’t deserve this job'
- 'I’m never going to make it'
- 'I’m too emotional'
- 'I always get things wrong'
These are just a few of the thoughts you may be telling yourself. Now, imagine the impact of repeating these words to yourself every single day, and the consequence this has on your self-esteem. Of course, we all have moments when we doubt ourselves and feel insecure, but what happens if it turns into chronic self-criticism?
Our mind is very powerful and, when we are tightly attached to a belief or narrative, even without realising this, our brain will find evidence in the outside world that confirms it. We could say our mind is like a very biased detective looking for clues that confirm the case, yet ignoring anything that disconfirms it. Our mind is excellent at this! We will not hear the praise, or give importance to what we did well; we will give all the weight to that negative comment our boss made, that interview that didn’t go the way we wanted, the wrong thing we said...
In integrative therapy, we work with sub-personalities: inner parts of the psyche that present as voices within us (very often using creative means of exploration). In the case of negative scripts, we would call this the voice of the inner critic. We all have a critical voice within us, influencing the way we act, think, dress, interact with others, etc. The inner critic is that inner voice that judges us, often puts us down, distorts our view of ourselves, and is often our own worst enemy.
It is helpful to have an awareness of the critical messages we repeat ourselves, in order to begin to challenge some of these narratives. Begin by observing when your inner critic is triggered and start to identify the patterns. Write in a journal, use your imagination or drawing. Be curious about your inner critic, and ask yourself;
- What does he/she look like, sound like?
- Does it remind you of anyone?
- What is the script, what does she/he say to you?
- Imagine a dialogue between you and your inner critic: what would you have to say to each other?
- Is your critic there for a reason?
Becoming more aware of the stories you hold within can help catch and challenge these critical thoughts, thus developing a more compassionate voice, one that is able to say;
- 'I am good enough'
- 'I am intelligent enough'
- 'I am beautiful'
- 'I am of value'
- 'It’s human to make mistakes'
- 'It’s ok that I feel like this'
- 'I have a right to be myself'
- 'My opinion matters'
- 'I deserve this'
Now, imagine what it would feel like to say this to yourself every day. Positive beliefs are extremely powerful too! Write down the messages you want to hear from your compassionate voice and remind yourself of these when the inner critic shows up again. Always ask yourself - 'what story am I telling myself right now?'. This can be a useful question to help you step back and see the bigger picture in any situation where your inner critic is triggered. Think of it this way: our brain just wants an easy explanation to what may be happening, in moments when we feel uncertain or vulnerable; thus it resorts to an old story to make sense of an experience. Begin to wonder - is this really what is going on?
Counselling and psychotherapy can greatly help in the process of transforming inner judgements into self-compassion. There are many tools a therapist can use in supporting clients in developing a healthier and more positive self-image.