I have the most aggressive self-critic I know. She takes every opportunity to tell me I’m not doing enough and not doing it right. And she’s relentless….. at least she used to. Until I learned some tools about how to work with her internally and how to talk with her.
Here’s what she would say to me when anything went wrong and I felt bad: “That’s not good enough, you are doing it wrong!” Don’t you see you are not measuring up?
She would say this to me when I am struggling the most. For example, when I feel like nothing is going right and my life plan is stuck, she would say, “Wow you really made a big mistake and now look at the mess you are in!” And that would trigger me into my negative thinking even more and I’d drive myself into a depressed place and it would take me some big positive events to pull me out.
WHY DO WE HAVE SELF-CRITICAL VOICES? WHAT IS THEIR JOB?
This phenomenon of a Self-Critic inside our heads has been discussed by many coaches, teachers in the field of psychology. Women are so good at beating themselves up and invoking self-blame, but men have self-critics too. The first step is befriending this voice and learning about her. Getting curious. Why do we have self-critics? What is the purpose of this voice inside of us?
In Internal Family Systems, a powerful tool for learning about yourself, or IFS, you learn that you have many parts or personalities inside of you. Everyone has multiple voices, it does not mean you are multiple personalities in the clinical dissociative sense. It just means you are normal and it is really helpful to begin to notice what these voices are saying and doing so you can be the leader of your internal system and not be pulled or pushed by parts with agendas that don’t serve you. So the Self-Critic is a part that can push and pull us if we don’t learn how to start noticing her/him and begin to develop a relationship with him/her. IFS is also a great tool for working with and healing our self-critics and other parts that are in pain inside of us.
So from this relationship of turning towards your self-critic and getting to know him/her, you will learn that truly the reason for her behavior is to protect you and help you not feel some painful experiences.
Truly, the reason these parts do this is for our survival. Somewhere in our lives we had no other choice but to blame ourselves, because life was not going well for us. And somewhere in our lives someone modeled this behavior for us or did it to us. We learned it early on and it’s stuck inside our internal selves. We can get a bit empathic and curious here… what made me need to protect myself by being harder on myself?
THE SELF CRITIC TRIGGERS A DEPRESSION LOOP
And how does she work? As soon as something triggers pain or struggle, she jumps out and starts telling us that we are to blame and how we did it all wrong. Then we feel worse and go into a cycle of piling more of our negative thinking onto it. This cycle has been called a “depression loop” by Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. in his book Uncovering Happiness. He states that complicated feelings like sadness trigger reactionary thoughts (negative self-talk) and sensations (emotional numbness) that cue certain behaviors like withdrawal and isolation. This loop leaves you feeling hopeless and sometimes anxious, but definitely trapped because you just keep re-circulating those thoughts in your head. This ends up being depression if it continues. Depression can cause a range of symptoms that interfere with daily life, happiness, and the ability to sleep, eat and be functional and enjoy pleasurable activities. We know from brain scans that depressed feelings are real and do impact how our brains function.
FOUR STEPS TO NAMING AND TAMING THIS SELF-CRITIC
The good news is, we can learn to stop this cycling. But we first have to recognize that this is what we are doing. Here’s some steps to get started…
1) Slow down and notice what is happening. This is the first step to changing this cycle. Use mindfulness to begin to notice: Do I have a self-critic who is starting this process inside of me?
2) Second, those thoughts are just thoughts. They aren’t reality. IGNORE YOUR THOUGHTS! Try to stop the negative thinking cycle by re-directing yourself — go do something with your body, take a walk, talk to someone, get out of your head.
3) Learn how to bring in compassion to yourself and your parts. Compassion can be cultivated by mindfulness practices that help you feel warmth and kindness towards yourself, self-soothing practices such as soothing touch, loving kindness or Metta practices, and just bringing in kindness to yourself when you are triggered or upset. Over time, these practices have been proven to give internal support through a sense of wellbeing that permeates your system and takes you out of these cycles.
4) Learn how to witness and talk to this part of you. She is just a part of you……You are so much more and when you can begin to witness her as separate from this greater sense of yourself, you will begin to feel her calm down. This is what I call “taming her” and you do this with your open-hearted curiosity and caring about her as if she is a friend or a special pet. When she starts feeling your loving heart, she will begin to respond to your wishes.
So, when you are having some feelings that don’t feel good, you have lots of choices for how to cope. You may have a form of depression that is easily triggered by these cycles. That doesn’t mean you have to throw in the towel in your life. Catching this cycle, learning to listen for this voice, and learning how to re-direct yourself out of this cycle is possible and you will be more resilient to deal with the next difficulty in your life in a different way.