Though many of us jokingly put ourselves down (and many comedians have a made a career of it), being self-critical is no laughing matter. When people are highly self-critical, they often invite other critical people into their life; or at the very least, they do not turn them away. With attacks from inside and outside, they too often accept their flawed unhappy selves in their inevitably unhappy lives. Despite how you might feel, you can develop a more positive view of yourself, especially if you take a two-pronged approach.
You can quell your inner critic by changing both how you relate to yourself and being careful about who you choose as a partner (and as friends). Think of your inner critic as a separate person with a voice that is not yours. By doing this, you take the important step of not accepting whatever it says as an accepted reality.
While people often think of themselves as a single, whole being, we are actually more like a collection of experiences. You may notice this in situations as simple as wanting to have a healthy salad for dinner while also salivating over the idea of a juicy triple cheeseburger with French fries. The decision you make is based on how you respond to your competing desires, not because you only have desires for healthy or unhealthy food. Similarly, people who are self-critical often have a more positive view of themselves on some level – but it is overpowered by their fears and sense of inadequacy.
So, if you tend to be critical of yourself, practice observing when you are self-critical. Pause a moment. Pay attention to whether there is another voice inside. Does some part of you disagree with the criticism? Or does it feel misunderstood or hurt? These kinds of responses let you know that you are more than the harsh voice, however weak or quietly expressed those other responses may be.
As you listen to the quieter voice, imagine that it is the voice of a friend or a child. Be open to its message and listen empathically. You will find that you feel compassion for this vulnerable part of yourself. If – or more likely, when – the inner critic tries to talk over or criticize that part of yourself, choose to return your attention to the softer voice.
As you build a compassionate self-awareness of the vulnerable part of yourself, you are also developing the skill of listening compassionately to your inner experiences. You might even find that you can attend to your inner critic with the same empathy and compassion.
Ask that harsh part of yourself more about its experience and you may find that it is acting out of fear or a (misguided) need to protect yourself. For instance, the inner critic might be telling you that you have no talent so that you don’t take any risks that might end in failure. Though it is trying to save you pain, it is also causing tremendous suffering. By offering that part of yourself compassion, you can learn to comfort it and then build your inner resilience, allowing you to enjoy the challenges life has to offer while effectively managing missteps and failures.
While attending to your inner experiences in this way, it is also extremely important to give equal attention to your relationships with others, especially your partner (if you have one). People who are self-critical are too often accepting of criticism from others – even when it is nonconstructive and hurtful. They think, after all, that they deserve it.
Ask yourself how you feel in the company of your partner (or friends), or after you have spent time with them. If you discover that they are aligned with the critical part of yourself, it’s time to challenge their hurtful way of treating you – and maybe even walk away from the relationship.
However, you may also discover that you are uncomfortable with your partner because they are supportive. Perhaps they believe in you more than you do, even encouraging you to take on challenges. If they seem to have your best interests at heart and are empathic to your struggles, they are a true friend.
Try to open your heart to their positive messages. Instead of thinking, “yeah, yeah” as they compliment you, choose to take in what they are saying. Entertain the idea that maybe there is truth in their words and sentiment. Allow yourself to absorb that your supportive friends are people who see all of you and love you for who you are – including accepting, or even loving, the parts that you think are not so lovable.
Taking in supportive, compassionate responses from within yourself and from other people can be a wonderfully effective antidote to self-criticism—perhaps even leading you to self-love along with a loving relationship.