If someone asked me what I think my biggest flaw is, the answer would come easy:
I’m overly self-critical.
Or at least, I used to be. I was always too hard on myself and felt guilty whenever I make a mistake. I scrutinized each one of my actions and thought none of my personal achievements were good enough.
Throughout the years, I learned to recognize the difference between making a mistake or a bad decision and being a bad person.
And although there are still days when my merciless inner critic wakes up and begins taunting me about my mistakes, I’ve found a way to silence the little bastard and be more kind and understanding towards myself.
Here’s how you can do the same.
1. Take a Trip Down Memory Lane
So, here’s the thing. You weren’t born being self-critical. No one is. Someone close to you, likely a parent, made you develop that trait growing up — even if they had no idea they did — by being critical, controlling, or abusive.
As is explained in this article in Psychology Today, self-criticism has its roots in the relationships we form during our early years:
“Self-criticism likely originates from our early relationships with caregivers and peers. For example, children whose parents are more controlling and less affectionate grow up to be more self-critical adults. Also, people who have been abused tend to be much more self-critical than those who have not.”
In my case, I didn’t need to look far for the root of my merciless inner critic: the culprit could be easily found, in the face of my father. Looking back, I remember him criticizing every one of my choices, actions, and ideas, ever since I was little.
Nothing I ever did or say was good enough, so I grew up believing that nothing I will do or say will ever be good enough. That’s probably the case with you as well. Your inner critical voice has its roots in your past experiences and especially, in people close to you who were overly critical of you.
The most important thing you need to understand and repeat to yourself whenever your inner voice echoes disappointment and guilt is the following: just because someone from your family thought you sucked at everything, doesn’t mean the whole world will think the same.
2. Practice Self-Distance
Self-distancing is a technique used in cognitive-behavioral therapy that aims to help you reframe any situation in more abstract terms and create some distance from your own perspective when assessing your emotions.
When it comes to self-criticism, self-distancing allow you to pause, step back, clear your mind, and approach/respond to a situation as if it were happening to someone else.
I practice this technique by referring to myself in the second person and ask some questions like “Why are you so worried about…”, “What makes you think you’re not good enough to…”, or tell myself some positive affirmations like “Yesterday’s interview that went awful is not a reflection on your self-worth”, or “That mistake you made last week in work is not a reflection on your intelligence”.
Self-distancing always helps me to step back for a moment, assess my situation and my feelings in a rational way and stop beating myself up over minor mistakes that say nothing about my character and self-worth.
3. Always Talk to Yourself as You Would to a Good Friend
Imagine a good friend gives you a call one day and tells you they made a big mistake and they start a monologue on what a big failure they think they are.
What would you do? Would you attack them by telling them they’re “ridiculous”, “stupid”, or “useless”? Or, would you attempt to soothe them by telling them that “It’s not so bad”, “We all make mistakes”, “You should try to look on the bright side”?
What I’m really trying to say here is that, when it comes to making mistakes, if you wouldn’t say something to a friend, don’t say it to yourself. Try to talk to and treat yourself equally as kind and gentle as you’d treat a good friend.
4. Stop Looking Outward and Start Turning Inward
One of the most crucial things I realized on my journey to self-improvement was that something that triggered my excessive self-criticism was my tendency to compare myself to others.
And sadly, I’m not the only one. According to the Social Comparison Theory, developed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, it’s a human tendency to determine your social and personal worth based on how you stack up against others.
But it’s a bad, bad tendency. Constantly evaluating yourself based on how successful, wealthy, intelligent, or attractive the people around you are, keeps waking up your inner critic and as a result, fills you with feelings of deep dissatisfaction, guilt, and anxiety.
To be less vulnerable to painful comparisons, you need to:
- Step away from people/situations that prompt this behavior.
- Make an effort to start being grateful for what’s good in your own life.
- Remember that there will always be people who don’t even have the most essential things (like enough food, water, or electricity) and would kill to be in your shoes.
It’s time you stopped looking outward and started turning inward. The only person you should allow yourself to be compared with is your former self.
If you too, have an inner voice that beats you up whenever things don’t work out the way you would have liked, remember that you’re not the only one.
Self-compassion can be hard to practice, but with time and patience, it only gets easier. And you should know that being understanding, kind, and compassionate to yourself is not just the loving thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
You can take a small step towards self-compassion today, right now, by accepting a universal truth: we all make mistakes.