Brendon Towle Coaching

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How to Overcome Self-Criticism

Following up on last week’s topic of not believing everything you think, one of the things I hear often is that people want to “overcome” or “conquer” their negative self-talk or their inner critic. When I ask them what this really means and we explore it a bit, the answer is usually that they want those voices to go away completely.

I get it. I mean, those voices suck, right? Nobody (I don’t think?) likes them, nobody likes listening to them, and the desire to have them go away makes complete sense to me.

Unfortunately, I have some bad news. I certainly don’t claim to know everything about self-talk. However, I have been practicing loving self talk for close to 30 years now, and if there’s a way to make those inner voices go away completely, I don’t know about it. And, the people I know, whose inspiration I follow, don’t know about it either.

However, the news isn’t all bad. What I have found is that two things are possible. First, it’s possible to learn to not pay so much attention to those voices, to not take them so seriously, and to respond in ways that can often make them shut up (for a while). Second, it’s possible, through practices of self-talk and self-compassion, to reduce the frequency and intensity of those voices. Here’s a roadmap for how to do this:

Label the Self-Critical Voices

One of the first things that 12-step programs talk about is the idea that your addiction is a thing separate from you, that lives in your head and talks to you in your own voice. Labeling the voice as something separate from yourself, and then practicing identifying individual utterances as the voice of addiction, makes it much easier to not pay so much attention to those voices.

As I dug deeper into the research I was amazed to learn that basically everyone who talks about overcoming or learning to get past your inner voices agrees on the first and most important step to get there. That is, label or name the voices. In particular, identify them as something other than you.

Just a few examples of how this is used:

  • In 12-step programs, labeling the voices as the voice of your disease.
  • Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, talks about giving a name to your fixed mindset as a way to reduce its power over you.
  • Shirzad Chamine, in his book Positive Intelligence, talks about naming your Judge saboteur as a way to reduce its credibility and power.

The reason this works is connected to the idea of not believing everything you think. When the voice of your self-criticism is unlabeled, it is much easier to perceive it as gospel truth—as your own infallible interpretation of the situation around you. However, labeling it as something external gives you power over it.

It also makes it clearer that this voice probably does not have your best interests at heart, which makes it easier to take the next step.

Dismiss the Self-Critical Voices

Once you label the voice—as something external, something fallible, something malicious—then it becomes much easier to disbelieve or question or dismiss it. One of the best ways to do this is by talking back to it. This can be done in internal mental dialogue, or, if necessary, by actually talking out loud.

There are a bunch of ways to do this. Which one will work the best for you depends on what the voice is saying, and on your personality and temperament. Some examples that have been helpful for me and others:

  • “That’s not helpful right now.”
  • “I understand your concern but I’ll take over now.”
  • “That’s not true.”
  • “I’m not actually interested in your input here.”
  • “Okay, you’ve said your piece. Now fuck off.”

For me, the ones that work best are the ones that are dismissive. I try to make it clear with both my words and my tone that the self-critical voice is something that is not worth paying attention to. When I do that, it’s much easier to not pay attention to it. I try not to be rude in real life, so I’d never say these things to another person, but they’re the ones that I find helpful in talking back to my inner critic.

What’s the Evidence?

After identifying and labeling the voices, sometimes simply dismissing the voice isn’t enough. In that case, what I try to do is to demand that the voice provide the evidence for its criticism.

Much of the time, when I look at the evidence, I find that it is not particularly persuasive. I talked about this in my very first published article on this blog; often, when I think I know something, what I find is that I’m just making shit up, or that I’m stuck in the belief that I can read minds, or that I can predict the future. The voices of my inner critic have the same problem, and so I can confront them on it.

Again, this is connected to the idea of not believing everything you think. Instead of taking your inner critic’s voice as gospel, ask it to prove its case. Most of the time, I suspect you’ll find that it can’t—because it’s not actually true.

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