Dealing with self-criticism
What makes you unhappy? Why do you get angry, stressed, anxious or depressed? Do you struggle with a lack of confidence or self-belief? And do you ever feel dissatisfied and convinced that there must be more to life than this, if you only knew how to achieve it?
The answers to these questions are as unique and multi-layered as humanity – I cannot know you, the wounds you may carry from childhood, or the ways in which your family shaped you, both good and bad. And I wouldn't presume to know, without spending time with you and hearing your story.
But the more time I spend helping people become stronger and happier, the clearer it becomes that a harsh, unkind inner voice lies at the root of many of my clients' problems. This 'inner critic' is often so powerful that people cannot distinguish its voice from their own. But the human mind is exquisitely complex. We are not just James or Jane, but many people: we are parents, siblings, colleagues, bosses, lovers, friends, sons and daughters. We are both our adult selves – reasonably strong, capable and with a logical world view – and our child selves.
These younger versions of us are often vulnerable, dominated by powerful emotional needs and demands, with no sense of fairness or logic. When we lash out with rage or are broken-hearted and bereft, we have regressed into these younger parts of us, until we can find a way back to our adult selves.
And one part of us, which often speaks louder than the others, is our inner critic. Depending on our upbringing, the way our parents behaved with and spoke to us, and the beliefs we now hold about ourselves and the world, this critic may be mild and persuasive, like a kindly teacher. Or it might be vicious, an inner bully that attacks us every time we fail, focusing on our weaknesses and belittling our strengths and achievements.
I often tell my self-critical clients to imagine someone standing next to them, muttering harsh words into their ear throughout the day. How might that make you feel? Depressed, perhaps, because you're clearly a terrible person with no redeeming qualities at all? Or anxious, because you live in constant fear of getting it wrong?
So silencing your inner critic – or at least, turning down the volume on those rants – is vital for good mental health. One way to do this is to use techniques adapted from Buddhist psychology, which Western mental health professionals such as myself are now embracing because they work so well. Read The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, by Christopher Germer, if you would like to know more.
And, of course, I'm happy to help you stop that critic from dragging you down or upsetting you all the time. After all, most of us encounter bullies at school or work – why on earth should we bully ourselves too?