It's common sense that being overly harsh or self-critical in your thinking will have a negative impact on your mood, confidence and overall wellbeing. But I think it's important to understand exactly why this is the case. Because of the miracle of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, we now have an intimate knowledge of how the brain operates under stress. We can see which parts of the brain 'light up' when we are feeling stressed or attacked – this is known as the 'threat system', a powerful self-protective network in the brain that detects and responds to any kind of danger or threat.
When you engage in self-critical thinking, calling yourself an idiot, or saying you are stupid or useless – especially if your internal dialogue has an harsh or hostile tone – MRI scans show the same threat system lights up in your brain as if someone else was shouting at or scolding you. It's no surprise that this kind of thinking is closely linked with depression, problems with anger and anxiety, as well as a lack of confidence or low self-esteem.
When you speak to yourself harshly, it's as if there is a bully in your head judging everything you say or do and putting you down at every turn. Not helpful. If you do tend to engage in self-critical thinking, try the following exercise to start being kinder to yourself:
The best friend test
When you make a mistake, have a setback or feel like you have failed at something important to you, you might find yourself slipping into a well-worn groove of negative, self-critical thinking: 'I am such a loser – why do I always screw things up?', or 'God, that was pathetic, I really am a failure.'
Unsurprisingly, these words will hurt and you will find your mood dipping and confidence ebbing away.
Instead, try to start noticing when you talk to yourself like that and take a step back. Imagine your best friend had just made the same mistake, had a setback or failed at something they valued. What would you say to them? Would you be harsh, mocking or critical? Probably not. I'm guessing you would try to be supportive, encouraging and help them see that it wasn't the end of the world.
You might say things like, 'Don't worry, it seems bad right now but you will feel better about it soon,' or 'Everybody makes mistakes sometimes – that doesn't make you stupid or a bad person, just human.'
Now try and start talking to yourself in the same way. If you notice that self-critical thinking kicking in, use the Best Friend Test to be a bit more kind and compassionate to yourself. Over time, it will help you feel calmer, stronger and more at peace. After all, life is hard enough, so why make it harder by being unkind to yourself?