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Tips From a Therapist If You Struggle With Self-Criticism

“Would you tell your kid she’s ‘stupid?’”

“What?! No. Never.”

My client and I were wrapping up a session and she had just begun being incredibly critical to herself.

“OK,” I said. “Why not?”

“Well,” my client said, “Because she’s just a child, she’s my child! And she’s not  ‘stupid,’ and I love her and …

I interrupted her. “Exactly! You love her and you would never in a million years say that to her. So, why are you saying it to yourself?”

Client pauses. “Well, it’s different with me. I am ‘stupid.’ Plus, I’m an adult, so it’s different.”

I take a deep breath.

“It’s not, actually. It’s not different. You’re not ‘stupid’ and it’s your job as an adult to treat yourself with the same kindness you give to your actual child. With the same patience, and love, and compassion as you would have ideally been shown when you were a child. And I think if you could give yourself even one fraction of what you give to your child, if you could turn that love back on yourself even a tiny bit, you’d experience powerful shifts in your self-esteem and confidence.”

Why actively speaking kindly to yourself matters. 

Over the last 10 years of clinical psychotherapy work, I must have had a conversation like the one in this blog’s opening at least 300 times.

I never fail to be amazed at how many of my clients are wonderful, loving, instinctually compassionate and supportive parents to their own children, despite coming from adverse and outright tragically abusive backgrounds where almost no one showed them even a modicum  of the care they show their own children.

It brings me to tears to think about how good my clients are at parenting their children despite the lack of “good enough parenting” they received.

But it also makes me so sad to see, despite how wonderful they are with their own children, they still deeply struggle to speak and treat themselves well.

It seems ironic and disconnected, doesn’t it?

You can be a wonderful parent to your flesh and blood children, but a terrible inner parent to yourself.

But, I see this all the time.

That’s why one of my very favorite therapy tools to use when I’m dealing with a particularly self-critical client and  I know that they’re a wonderful parent, is to invite them to speak to themselves as they would to their own child(ren).

Why does this matter?

In a word: neuroscience.

To elaborate, I’m sure you, like so many of us, have heard the term “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

This phrase and contribution to the field of neuropsychology was first used in 1949 by Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist.

Effectively, Hebb’s rule teaches us each thought (spoken or unspoken), every habit, every feeling and physical sensation we experience triggers the firing of neurons which, in time, creates a neural network in your brain.

Associated channels of memory and habit as it were.

And when you repeat something again and again — consciously or unconsciously — you reify (meaning, strengthen) that neural network.

So, for anyone particularly self-critical who has spent a lifetime lambasting, degrading and being outright unkind to themselves, they likely have strong neural pathways to reinforce this behavior.

To achieve the change that client ultimately wants from our therapy together, we have to, effectively, rewire their brain.

We have to form new  neural pathways around treating and speaking to themselves more kindly, more compassionately.

And a very large amount of this “rewiring” can come from teaching and supporting my clients to actively talk to themselves more kindly in between our sessions.

Talking to and about themselves as they would speak to and think about their own children.

Here’s how the exercise looks in practice.

How to actively speak more kindly to yourself.

The way I teach my clients to actively speak to themselves more kindly happens in three steps:

1. Moment to moment, catch yourself being unkind to yourself.

2. Pause. Instead of being unkind to yourself, think of what you would say to your own child in that moment.

3. And then actively say that to yourself instead.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it?

It is a simple exercise.

But in no way is it easy.

In fact, I think this is probably one of the most challenging exercises I offer clients.

Why?

Because, first of all, it requires you to bring a heightened awareness to how you’re talking to yourself moment to moment.

Each time you get out of the shower and see your loose skin and belly hanging down, each time you get interrupted by your less-than-supportive manager on a Zoom call, each time you see the state of your chaotic garage and yard and start berating yourself for not having a tidier home … you need to bring awareness to all of these moments through the day  when you’re on neural pathway autopilot and starting to beat yourself up about yourself/your capacities/your life.

This level of mindfulness takes work  and it’s not always comfortable to do.

Then, when you do catch yourself in those moments when you’re about to be unkind to yourself, you need to pause, as much as possible, and stop yourself from saying something unkind/unsupportive/mean to yourself, and instead think, “What would I say to my own child?”

You might tell your son or daughter:

“It’s OK honey, you’re doing a great job and you’re working so hard. It’s OK not to have everything be perfect.”

“Your body is strong and healthy and beautiful. I love your body!”

“You’re scared and anxious right now, that makes sense. I’m here with you. I got you.”

And then, here’s where it gets even more uncomfortable: You then say those things to yourself.

Yes, really.

Out loud. Silently. It doesn’t matter.

You just have to say that alternative, kind, supportive thought to yourself to get those new, different neurons firing.

It will feel awkward. It will feel forced. It will feel fake.

Remember: You’ve spent decades speaking and treating yourself unkindly.

Those self-critical neural pathways are strong.

It’s going to take time and some discomfort to create new neural pathways and to have those new neural pathways start to feel as automatic as the old ones.

But, if you keep practicing the above exercise, day after day, you will create new neural pathways for yourself and you will support the transformation of your self-talk, which in turn, will lead to a cascade of positive psychological impacts.

This is the work of change.

It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

And never once have I had a client come back to me after I assign this exercise and say, “Wow, Annie that was really easy to do. A breeze.”

But also, every single time I have assigned this exercise, my clients have come back and said, “Wow, that was powerful. Uncomfortable, but powerful. I can feel some difference already.”

So again, the work of change, particularly when we come from adverse early beginnings, is not easy. But it is so worthwhile.

The invitation.

So now, my invitation to you is this:

If you identify with this essay today, if you struggle speaking to yourself or thinking about yourself kindly, if you struggle with treating yourself well — with respect, love and care — I want you to practice this exercise, actively talking kindly to yourself, at least once a day for the next week.

If you have a child you deeply love, it is very powerful to use them as a resource here when and if you struggle to find something kind or caring to say to yourself.

If you don’t have a child, but there is a child in your life you really love, a niece or nephew or little neighbor child, imagine them in this exercise. How would you talk to them?

And if you can tolerate this and if you want to make this exercise even more powerful, find a childhood photo of yourself from an age of your youth. Imagine speaking kindly and supportively to this  child.

And then, if you’re willing, please share how this exercise felt for you by leaving a message in the comments of this blog.

We get over 20,000 blog visitors each month and they might benefit from hearing your experience and insights so they can feel less alone.

So again, if you feel inclined, please share about your experience using this exercise.

And, until next time, please take such good care of yourself.

You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

Getty image by Viktor_Gladkov