Life Lessons In Living Happier

Learning to Truly Like Yourself

The single best way to overcome negative self-criticism is to get in touch with the thoughts that create such reactions and emotions. 

Once you can "hear" your inner critic, you will be able to reduce its influence -- and substitute useful thoughts that improve your mood and give you confidence and the ability to solve problems.

Hearing your critic

Self-criticism is a natural process.  Nearly everyone has been taught to doubt his/her abilities and judgment since childhood.  It has been estimated that between first and 12th grades, the average child has been criticized 16,000 times.

In response, your brain has produced an ongoing stream of comments, advice and thoughts related to nearly everything you do or try to do. 

Inner warnings are often based on earlier experiences -- and the impact of those experiences.  That's why it's so hard for people who have failed at something to try again.

But until you can actually hear what you're telling yourself, you won't be able to reprogram these negative messages.  To hear what your brain is saying, train yourself to listen.

Example:  When you're nervous, listen for a voice in your head saying things like.  What if I mess up? or I'll never get this report done on time.  If you experience a disappointment, listen for a voice saying,  Nothing ever goes right for me.
Helpful When your inner voice is easier to hear if you're aware of where it comes from.  As an exercise, say to yourself, I am listening to my inner speech.  Close your eyes, and listen carefully.  Where do you hear the words coming from?  For many people, inner speech comes from just behind the eyes and between the ears or at the base of the skull.  Repeat out loud the words you hear -- or jot them down.

When you can imagine where the words are coming from, you'll have an easier time tuning in to change or to challenge what's being said.

Identifying the Criticism

Once you can hear your inner critic, identify the words that rob you of your self-confidence and make you feel helpless and hopeless.
Example:  When you're about to try something new, do you hear the words, I can't do that?  Or when someone doesn't say hello, do you hear, He/she doesn't like me?  When you suffer a setback or a disappointment, do you hear, I never get what I want?
Listen to the tone of your inner speech.  A belittling, criticizing tone of voice tells you as much as the words themselves.

Listen for repeated condescending phrases, such as I can't...  and I always do that.

To hear your inner speech more clearly, slow it down by repeating the words slowly.

Example:  On a recent flight from Boston, I [John Kildahl] left my briefcase on the plane.  I heard myself thinking, I won't be able to function.  How stupid I am.  I really sabotaged myself.  When I repeated these phrases slowly, it was clear how self-defeating they were.
You will probably be shocked by how frequently you start to notice negative words coming from your inner voice.
Example:  One of my patients recently noted 26 negative thoughts during the first day she tried this exercise.  They explained her lack of confidence and feelings of hopelessness.

Silencing the critic

You can't keep negative thoughts from entering your mind.  But you can nip them before they generate bad feelings and cause unwise actions or poor judgment.  One Technique:  Keep a negative thought diary.
Even betterAs soon as you hear any negative inner speech, say to yourself, Stop!  If you're by yourself, say it out loud.  If not, say it to yourself, clearly and firmly. 
bullet I'm lousy at ---STOP!
bullet What will I do if -- STOP!
bullet I can't do this report -- STOP!
The faster you interrupt yourself, the better.  Be prepared to say STOP! over and over again.  In the beginning, it's not unusual to have the same thought 20 times a day.
ImportantDon't allow repeated negative thoughts and the frustration with trying to stop them to become a source of additional self-criticism.  Many people find themselves saying Stop it, stupid... and  There I go again.  Won't I ever learn?
Be hard on your negative thoughts -- but be compassionate with yourself.

Reprogramming the critic

Once you've stopped a negative thought, it's likely to come back in a matter of seconds -- unless you switch to another thought.

These thoughts of distraction can be about something neutral, such as the pen in your hand or the color of the wallpaper.  Switching can be even more effective if you substitute a positive, useful thought or confident words that lead you toward solving problems instead of being crushed by them.

A New Way of Thinking

Essential as it is to listen in, stop and switch from negative thoughts, you also want to make large-scale changes in your thinking -- to reorient it to help you solve problems.
Example:  Imagine an evening when you're tired, preoccupied about work and brooding about a meeting that didn't go well.  A friend calls and says, Let's go out.  Immediately your modd picks up as you anticipate a pleasant evening.
You can do the same kind of positive reinforcement for yourself before self-doubt creeps in.  Think about the things you like about yourself... The activities you find interesting... and your ability to manage successfully.  Recall the encouragement you've received friends and mentors.

When your inner voice fills you with worry and self-doubt, recall this positive, competent view of yourself.

Example:  I was to give a talk to a large group of pediatricians in Japan recently.  It was hot, and these doctors clearly didn't want to be there.  I anxiously imagined an hour with a bored, resentful audience.

Before my inner critic wore me down, I sad for five minutes and thought about my qualifications -- 25 years' experience as a psychologist.  I recalled the applause of other audiences and told myself I would surely be able to impart several useful ideas to these people, and they would appreciate it.  Then I went out and spoke confidently, which made the audience respond well.

By anticipating your inner critic, you will be able to head off self-doubt and solve problems with smart solutions.
Excerpt from Bottom Line Personal  ( December 1 1996 issue) interview with Dr. John Kildahl, Phd, (at the time of the interview) a psychologist in private practice and member of the faculty of the Post graduate Center for Mental Health in New York.  He was coauthor of Beyond Negative Thinking:  Reclaiming Your Life Through Optimism  (Avon Books)