-Sharon Martin, LCSW
We talk to ourselves all day long. We comment, critique, and chastise our every move. From the big to the small – every decision and action gets scrutinized by our inner critic. For most of us, it’s harsh. Much harsher than what we say to anyone else.
Where does this negative self talk come from? Sometimes people tell me it’s very clearly their mother’s or father’s voice internalized. Other times it’s less clear. It might be a compilation of negative messages that you’ve heard — a dance teacher who called you fat, a boss who made fun of you when he thought you were out of earshot, a teacher who returned every essay completely covered in red corrections, your father who never gave a damn about you, or your grandma who blamed you for her anxiety.
We hear these messages as: There’s something wrong with me. People don’t like me. I don’t fit in. I suck. I’m stupid. I’m fat. I’m simply not good enough. Everyone else is succeeding and happy and I’m not. Obviously, I’m the problem. I’m the one that can’t keep up or live up to expectations.
There are plenty of ways to show yourself some love. In fact, I wrote a popular list of 22 ways to love yourself more. Often, the challenge is getting started. When you don’t feel lovable or good enough, how are you going to write yourself a love letter or forgive your mistakes? Before you can do any of those things, you have to find just one tiny little piece of you that’s worthwhile.
This means you have to muck through all the garbage people (including yourself) have been telling you, sort through it, come to your own conclusions about who you are, and throw out the false beliefs, inaccurate conclusions, and other toxic waste.
Start by noticing when this beast, that we like to call the inner critic, is rising up. Tell it to shut up. Go ahead and say it out loud, say it to yourself, tell a friend, write it down. This belittling beastly voice isn’t your pet cat. Stop letting it out and feeding it. It will eventually grow weak, shrink, and die. Don’t lose hope. It takes time to starve a giant beast.
You need to be firm and direct. You need to vigilantly watch for attempted escapes. This alone takes practice. Notice when the belittling beastly voice is out. Tell it you’re done with its lying, conniving ways. Lock it back up. Repeat. And repeat again and again.
At the same time that you’re starving out the belittling beastly voice, I want you to do four things for yourself every day.
- Ask yourself: “What do I really think?”
It’s time to start thinking for yourself instead of believing what others have told you. Absorbing and believing negative messages about yourself started when you were young, which is why you don’t question them or realize many are simply false. These beliefs also have a tendency to become self-fulfilling. When you’re told you’re stupid, you unconsciously act in ways to make this your reality. It doesn’t have to be this way. Positive beliefs about yourself can be self-fulfilling in exactly the same way.
It helps to slow down, so you can turn inward and explore what you’re really thinking and feeling. If you’re not used to doing this, it can feel quite strange. You may find “negative” feelings that are hard to deal with or you may initially find no feelings at all. Keep looking. A good therapist can help you differentiate your feelings/thoughts from those of your parents (or others).
The point is that you get to decide how you feel about yourself. You no longer have to take the labels that have been thrown at you. Be selective. Really challenge those old stories that continue to tell you that you’re stupid, weak, troubled, or the cause of other people’s problems.
- Write down one thing that you did right today, that you’re proud of, that you like about yourself. One thing every single day. If this is hard, start small – I took a shower so I didn’t offend my coworkers with my b.o., or I put in a solid 20 minutes of work before I started surfing the web. Just start somewhere. If you’re stuck, think of something nice that a friend has said. If you do this consistently every day, you’ll start to notice things that really matter. Focus on the things that you like about yourself. Work on improving the parts of yourself that you don’t like.
- Keep negative people at a distance. This is challenging for sure. But it’s actually easier than tackling your own negative self-talk. If others refuse to treat you with respect, you can choose to separate yourself. But you have to learn to respect and love yourself. Of course, the challenge is that it’s hard to leave unhealthy relationships when your self-esteem is in the toilet and you think you just may deserve this lousy treatment from others. This is why you have to work on both the inner and outer critics at the same time.
- Forgive yourself. Yes, do it every day for the big things and the little things. Make it a practice because self-forgiveness is the opposite of self-criticism. It can be as simple as saying, “I forgive myself for ___________. I’m doing the best I can. I don’t have to be perfect to be lovable.” You can be happily imperfect.
There isn’t a quick fix for building self-esteem, self-worth, or self-love. It’s a daily practice. The more you work at, the better you’ll feel about yourself.