Why are we so hard on ourselves?
We fight a battle within ourselves every day. If we haven't worked a lot this week, we are lazy. If we worked too much we are a neglectful parent, pet owner, or partner.
We strive to fit this perfect archetype that doesn't even exist. But why?
We hold ourselves accountable for things we cannot control, we refuse to give ourselves a break, and we drive our bodies into the ground for an old-age pension that we won’t get to enjoy because we will be too decrepit from working so much to make use of our newfound free time.
We refuse to get help when we are impacted by trauma, saying “I’ll get through it on my own,” as if we don’t deserve to heal.
We are punishing ourselves by becoming martyrs, but why?
Why Are We So Hard on Ourselves?
“People find the expression of emotion, even if it’s sadness, to be a pleasant experience.”
-“Believing in Magic”, Dr. Stuart Vyse
I’ve always noticed that the people who are hardest on themselves are the ones with the harshest “inner critic,” and pushing themselves is a way to silence this tiny naysayer.
Your inner critic is that voice that sounds in your mind whenever things aren't going your way. It is usually has a negative tone, and criticizes you for things you can—and cannot control.
Some people have a stronger inner critic than others.
I believe that some of this self-punishing behavior is generational, our elders seem to take pride in overworking and not looking after themselves, probably because hard work was ingrained in them from a very young age.
To them, pain is gain. My father never had a real childhood, at the age of 5, he was working at a farm until his tiny hands bled. Now he works for “fun” on his days off and he has yet to retire although he’s in his 60’s and could afford to leave at any time. A hard-working life is all he knows.
Some people of the past generations see mental illness as a weakness, gossip fodder, and something that doesn't impact them, even if they are, themselves, deeply mentally scarred.
If we “deal with things on our own,” our mental state will continuously suffer until we are incapacitated with anxiety and depression, which will cause us to become further enslaved to our inner critic.
We need to give ourselves permission to be happy and heal, go for what we want in life, and take a much-needed break. Rest rejuvenates us, makes us better employees, and therapy will help us heal and deal with our problems.
Most of all, we need to silence that nasty inner critic that tells us that we aren’t good enough.
By treating ourselves the way we deserve to be treated, we will become whole again.
How to Silence Your Inner Critic
In 2013, a psychology paper was published in the Journal of Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies by Nele Stinckens, Ph.D., a researcher at KU Leuven in the Netherlands.
This paper is a review of clinical therapeutic strategies that will help the reader deal with their inner critic. While these practices are recommended for a client-therapist context, some practices may be helpful to you in the “privacy of your own mind”.
Step 1: Identify Your Inner Critic
To silence your inner critic, first, you will have to listen to that voice and notice when it increases. Does that negative voice increase when you’re anxious, make a mistake, or during social situations?
Identifying the pattern of your inner critic will help you pinpoint where it is coming from. By repeating the criticisms out loud and identifying the emotions behind these thoughts, you will learn to separate that voice from who you are and what you are actually doing.
Step 2: Distance Yourself From the Critical Thoughts
Once you have identified your inner critic, writing down and reflecting on these inner criticisms will help you create more distance and separate this voice from your psyche.
Dr. Stinckens found that when the clients visualized their inner critic as an actual person, it helped them create emotional distance between the voice and the individual.
Eventually, her clients were able to assess the accusations of their inner critic instead of unknowingly accepting them as their own thoughts and feelings.
Step 3: Recognize the Helpful Attributes of Your Inner Critic
If you notice an element of protection in your inner critic’s voice, your tiny naysayer may be trying to help you. In many therapy cases reviewed in this study, the clinician asked their client to give their inner critic its own identity.
Dr.Stinckens’ team found that the inner critic voice often had the role of a parent or a parental figure such as a friend, teacher, or sibling.
“By paying attention to the critic’s feelings and concerns and valorizing these, the critic will feel less of a need to constantly manifest itself.”
- An excerpt from the Journal of Person-Centered and Experiential Psychotherapies by Nele Stinckens, Ph.D
Giving your inner critic the identity of someone you trust opens up the possibility for personal growth. The negative voice becomes a positive force. For example: “You’ve dropped that vase and broke it, now you have to clean it up and you’ve ruined everything!” becomes “That vase was old and worn, now you can go buy yourself something for the mantle that you actually enjoy”.¹
These three steps will help you identify your inner critic, distance yourself from that voice by separating it from your inner thoughts, and giving your inner critic a positive “cloak” by re-identifying it as a pragmatic figure in your life.
A Final Word
People who become victims of their own circumstances do nothing to change what is, and accept their place in life even if they openly hate it. It’s as if they are punishing themselves for an unknown offense.
I feel like many of us are missing the point of living, and forgetting that life is indeed, “too short.” Every second we spend working overtime is a second we aren’t living our lives, every minute we spend reliving old traumas is a minute we will never get back.
Silence your inner critic and become whole again.
Nele Stinckens, Germain Lietaer & Mia Leijssen (2013) Working with the inner critic: Process features and pathways to change, Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies. https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1080/14779757.2013.767747
Please note: The exercises mentioned in this article are intended for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read in this article.