how to deal when your inner critic is an asshole {self-talk first aid}

inner-critic-self-talk

This little beast goes by many names: Negative self-talk. Inner Critic. Inner mean girl/shit-talker. Limiting beliefs. Shame spiral. Your "gremlins".

It's that all-too-familiar voice in your head that knows just what to say to take you down a notch (or five), whether it's when you've made a mistake:

"Way to go. How stupid can you be?!  They're going to know you're a complete fraud now!"

Or even when you're doing well:

"They seemed to like the presentation.. but they're probably just complimenting me to be nice, not because they mean it. I'm nowhere near as good as Marie, and I'm sure I never will be even if I work my ass off."

Ok, let's pause for a second.

Take a breath.

Even just reading those words, do you notice anything happening in your body? A tightening of your chest, clenching your jaw — pit in your stomach?

Shaming yourself hurts, not only at the mental/emotional level, but at the physiological level, too. And one huge reason for that is because, as humans, we have not yet evolved to the point of self-awareness that we can clearly see our thoughts as just that — thoughts. Strings of words in our minds, which really should only be given any weight when they are somehow useful to us.

Instead, we give them a lot of credit and tend to automatically buy in to whatever idea they're selling us.

There are many different approaches to working with self-talk, and I'm not shy about my bias towards an acceptance-based approach rather than a traditional cognitive-behavioral approach of changing and eliminating "negative" thoughts. While I love the CBT framework of "ANTs" (automatic negative thoughts), I don't necessarily agree with the idea that we should aim to just kill all the ants because they're "bad." (I guess this is true at the literal level too, unless they're inside my house — then, sorry guys.)

Following this metaphor, let's say I have ants in my backyard that don't actually do anything harmful to my yard or myself, unless I step right in their mound and just leave my foot there for them to crawl on. This is very similar to your thoughts, because a thought itself can't actually harm you — it's just a string of syllables in your head, remember? The problem is that when we forget they're just thoughts that don't have real power to control our actions and our lives  — and we buy into them, hook, line and sinker — it's sort of like standing hopelessly in the ant pile. Also, if you spend lots of time, energy and money trying to get rid of those damn ants, instead of finding a way to coexist outside with them there and enjoy the sunshine, well... that's a lot of beautiful days you're missing out on unnecessarily.

Therein, one of the traps you can fall into as you're trying to improve your self-talk is that sometimes the more you focus on "getting rid of" the negative self-talk, the louder it becomes — and it can also make you feel like a failure, when in reality, humans inherently aren't equipped to turn thoughts a feelings on and off like a faucet.

We are great at problem-solving with external issues. (Dirt on the floor? Sweep it up! Need to drive over that body of water? Build a bridge!) But when we try to apply this same logic internally, it doesn't work out so well. (Don't like feeling guilty? Make it stop! Oh wait... it's still here. Have a drink - or 5! Go shopping!) Yeah... our methods for "getting rid of" difficult thoughts and feelings tend to backfire and create even more problems for us.

I could go on forever about this topic (which is why Self-Talk First-Aid is one of my coaching programs), but for now, here's an experiment to try out:

Every time you notice yourself in negative self-talk (or inner critic, or whatever you want to call it at this point) over the next week, simply make a statement to yourself: "Oh, there's that thought again. I'm having that thought that _______."

It might sound silly or way too basic, but you'd be surprised how powerful it can be to remind yourself that whatever Greatest Hits criticism of yourself that's playing is just a thought. Once you have more awareness around that, you can also remember that the thought is A) nothing novel or helpful that you haven't already heard 1000 times before, B) probably not giving you great advice, and C) mostly just arising because it's part of your default mode at this point.

Try it out and let me know what you think! And if you have any favorite go-to strategies to deal with your inner critic, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. 

1 Comment

Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.

confidence, intuition, and shame pops

Intuition-Self-Esteem In my recent giveaway over on Facebook, I asked readers about what kinds of topics they'd like to see covered on the blog. One of them, not surprisingly, was confidence (*hat-tip to Susannah*), so I wanted to address that topic in today's post. (FYI, I'll use "confidence" and "self-esteem" interchangeably here; I'm sure we could split hairs on the distinction, but I consider them to be more or less the same concept.)

My journey to confidence has been much like my journey to this career: very windy. And as I write that, I'm laughing because my biggest struggles with confidence in recent years have been about my competency as a therapist. It is a tough business to be a young person in, y'all. Probably the best words of advice I have gotten on that topic came from my supervisor (a very wise woman), who told me, "You just have to allow yourself to be a young therapist." I think that comment applies in a much broader way, too:

"You just have to allow yourself to be __________."

Who you are.

Where you are.

At THIS moment.

A lot of people fear that if they give themselves this permission, they will become complacent. It's okay to want to become more skilled or more experienced or more healthy. But it has to also be paired with some level of acceptance of where you are today. This is the critical difference between acceptance and settling.

Self-Esteem and Intuition

I have written about how I believe that having a strong practice of self-compassion is more important than having high self-esteem. And while I do still believe that, some of what I've been reading in Caroline Myss' Anatomy of Spirit has reminded me of the critical importance of self-esteem, too, at least when defined in a spiritual context. She writes,

As we develop a sense of self, our intuitive voice becomes a natural and constant source of guidance. How we feel about ourselves, whether we respect ourselves, determines the quality of our life, our capacity to succeed in business, relationships, healing, and intuitive skills ... Intuitive guidance means having the self-esteem to recognize that the discomfort or confusion that a person feels is actually directing him to take charge of his life and make choices that will break him out of stagnation or misery. If a person suffers from low self-esteem, she cannot act on her intuitive impulses because her fear of failure is too intense. Intuition, like all meditative disciplines, can be enormously effective, if and only if, one has the courage and personal power to follow through on the guidance it provides.

She does such a good job at articulating something I feel like I already knew inside (intuitively!), but couldn't find the words to explain. Of course self-esteem is critical in this sense. It's about becoming intimate with your sense of self and having faith in your gut instincts (intuition), not about giving yourself mental gold stars for being the best/strongest/smartest.

So How Do You Get There?

Myss also notes that "No one is born with healthy self-esteem. We must earn this quality in the process of living, as we face challenges one at a time." I believe that everyone is born inherently good, and will more or less believe that they are good until confronted with external circumstances (i.e. a highly critical parent, media messages, bullying) that challenge this. However, developing a deeper trust in oneself and a sense of self-efficacy only come with experience. With doing the miles, and often learning the hard way.

For me, it was about both: first, coming to believe that I am already whole (which only happened when I connected spiritually), and second, giving myself many opportunities to learn, try, fail, try again, succeed, celebrate, fall, learn, try again. And the longer I'm on this planet, the more I expect and am okay with this sometimes-painful process, because in the end I get to know that guiding voice inside me a little bit better.

Fear is always part of the equation, but when you do not try, the cold, hard reality is that you deny yourself the opportunity to be proud of your efforts, which is necessary for building confidence. This also involves the spiritual challenge of working to let go of outcomes, or at least to be able to move through the grief or shame a non-ideal outcome rather than living in it for days or months or longer.

Shame Pops and "Not Good Enough"

I'm not sure where the term originated (neither is Google), but some of my colleagues and I refer to those sudden cringe-worthy, nauseating moments of shame as "getting hit by the shame pop." I visualize either a big-ass bat or an actual huge lollipop that comes out of nowhere and smacks you across the face. It's visceral, and it sucks. I believe that shame is really the only emotion that is not productive or helpful. (Some camps separate "toxic shame" and "healthy shame," while Brené Brown and others classify it into "shame" and "guilt", the latter of which actually can be helpful because it gives you a signal that you're straying form your core values.) However, I also believe that just like the experience of vulnerability, we cannot opt out of shame, as much as we might want to. And efforts to avoid it altogether often mean that we also avoid taking the kind of risks that would be life-expanding. Rather than avoid shame, we just need to have an action plan in place (shame resiliency, in Brené's terms) to help us shake it off as quickly as possible when we get hit by the shame pop. Not to numb it, but to reach out quickly for support and take actions of true self-care (not the same as self-indulgence, which usually end in regret!)

One of the most liberating ideas that I learned as I developed my sense of self and learned how to better handle shame was that you don't have to hate even the darkest parts of yourself. After I swung from anorexia into binge eating, I used to L-O-A-T-H-E the part of me that binged. It felt like a monster literally taking over my body, and when it was over, it was pure self-hatred, because I was just digging myself deeper into my existing hole of body-hatred. I learned from Geneen Roth about the Internal Family Systems model of therapy, and this was the first time that I could recognize that this part of me who binged was just a part that was trying to help me put out a fire but wasn't doing it in the right way. Rather than hatred, that part needed love and understanding, and to be told, "hey, I can see what you're trying to do and I appreciate that, but I've learned some things and have a way we can do it better now." I'll never forget the first time that I crawled into a hot bath afterwards and cried, finally not from a place of self-hatred, but from sadness and acceptance of this lost and scared part of me. Learning this fact and feeling it in my heart was a major turning point for me in truly recovering from my eating disorder.

The second liberating idea is to recognize that you will always have "not good enough" thoughts. I still have them regularly, but they no longer paralyze me (or lead me down a path of self-destructive behavior) because I've learned to use Defusion skills to name the story ("Yep, there's the 'not good enough' story again. Thanks, mind. I can take it from here because I actually want to do this thing anyway because it's important to me.") Sometimes we think that the people who are really good (worthy, talented, pretty, successful, confident, etc.) don't have these thoughts anymore. That's just plain wrong. They still have the "not good enough" thoughts like you and me, but they have learned to relate to them differently so the thoughts don't get in the way of doing what matters to them. If you think something's wrong with you because you still have these thoughts, I beg of you, please release yourself of that expectation and instead work to have a different relationship with the thoughts when they show up. Even just naming the story will help you get some distance from it.

And when you do that, you'll be more likely to follow through on whatever it is you're scared to do, and that is how confidence is built. Brick, by brick, by brick.

What does confidence mean to you? Do you agree with the connection between self-esteem and intuition? Please share your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, or wherever else you're connecting. Much love to you all!

3 Comments

Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.