This article is by Thea Jolly, one of our Certified Coaches and part of the coaching team on our the Lead the Change and Be Powerful Programmes.
Thea’s mission is to help women feel at peace with themselves – because only then can they make their biggest and boldest contributions to their families, communities and the world.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if you knew how to get rid of self-critical thoughts for good? Can you imagine how serenely you could float through your day without the self-doubt, self-criticism and rumination that normally goes on inside your head?
No stressing over meeting your work deadlines, no beating yourself up for saying the wrong thing, no recriminations for that parenting fail – again! And no sick feeling of shame as you reach for the bottle of wine, the chocolate or Netflix boxset at the end of a hard day when you promised yourself you wouldn’t.
And no wondering why you can’t pull it all together like other women can.
Let’s get real here: all of the women I know, including me, and including all the wildly successful ones we see on social media, have a head full of doubts, shoulds, oughts, disappointments and feelings of failure. Not all the time – but pretty much every day.
All humans have self-critical thoughts – they have been fundamental to our survival as a species. To ensure we stayed within the security of our tribe our brains evolved to prioritise social connections, fitting in and working together.
That is why our brains spend so much time and energy analysing and prioritising fitting in – it’s how we measure our safety. Which explains why how many likes you get on Facebook feels so important!
So the first thing for you to do is to acknowledge this. There is nothing wrong with you because you have self-critical thoughts. It’s perfectly normal and human. In fact, it would be more worrying if you didn’t have these thoughts: sociopaths and psychopaths spring to mind.
So our task is to manage these thoughts so that they stop affecting us so much. It’s all a matter of awareness, attitude and attention. Training your mind in these areas will lead to a more confident, emotionally resilient and happier life.
One of my favourite sayings is: ‘Knowledge is Power’. The more we know and understand about ourselves, the more control we have over how we think and behave.
To reduce the frequency and power of self-critical thoughts we need to get curious about them. It’s time to get up close and personal, get dirty and involved in what’s going on in your head. Be a detective, take notes and ask questions. Like Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple notice, notice, notice. If you have to wear a fake moustache or pastel cardigan to get into the part then do so!
The questions to ask include:
- What are you actually saying to yourself?
- When do these thoughts come up?
- What is the story you are telling yourself about your situation, other people and yourself?
- What are you making assumptions about?
- What emotions are you feeling?
- Where do these emotions come from?
- What fears or beliefs are underneath your self-critical thoughts and feelings?
- How are these self-critical thoughts affecting your behaviour, and your relationships?
- Can you notice any patterns?
The more you find out and understand about yourself, the more power you take back.
Your attitude while you are noticing what’s going on is crucial. Self-critical thoughts are judgemental and harsh. You have to step aside and be the observer of these thoughts from a non-judgemental, compassionate and accepting place. Don’t get sucked into them.
We wear judgement like a pair of sunglasses that we’ve forgotten to take off. Everywhere we look is tainted by our fears, hopes, preoccupations, likes, dislikes and unconscious beliefs. Again, this is normal; it’s what our brains do, but it’s not conducive to a meaningful and happy life.
Compassion and acceptance are equally important here. Without self-compassion and an acceptance of how things are now, we can’t bring sustainable change into our lives. Being motivated by fear and judgement only gets us so far. Our creative problem-solving abilities are shut off when we are in threat mode, so we have to use compassion to bring those parts of our brain back online. Without compassion our ancient emotional impulses run the show – which is why we end up behaving in ways we know aren’t who we truly are.
One word on acceptance: many women don’t want to accept themselves as they are. They think that acceptance means never changing or growing. The paradoxical result of accepting yourself, is that you can change more effectively than when you are beating yourself up.
When we are conscious with our attention – what we are focussing on in any particular moment – life seems to slow down enough to allow us to make more mindful choices.
When you are aware of what is going on – with yourself, with your children, with your co-workers – without judgement, you can act with so much more integrity and compassion.
Furthermore, if you are aware of situations that challenge you, you can intentionally put your focus on your thoughts and choose to talk to yourself in a more helpful, compassionate and empowering way in those situations.
Putting it into Practice
The critical thoughts you are noticing are just thoughts. Nothing more.
The emotions you are noticing are only emotions, nothing more.
You can notice them without attaching judgement to them, without adding a further emotional reaction to them (as much as possible) and without needing to act to change them.
You are simply there to notice what is going on, like watching a scene in a drama.
Things you could say to yourself are:
- ‘Ohh, that’s interesting…’
- ‘Mmmm, I’m feeling …… And that’s OK.’
- ‘I’m noticing I wish I wasn’t so impatient/angry/annoyed/tired. I can feel the judgement here and the desire for it to be different, and that’s OK. I’m human. I wonder why it means so much to me to be more patient/calm etc?’
- ‘I am noticing that this feels awful and I want to cry/shout/run away. And that’s OK.’
- ‘I’m noticing that I’m calling myself a bad mum/fat/useless again. Why did that come up now?’
- ‘What’s the story I’m telling myself here? Oh, yes, I’m worried about my work deadline and am taking it out on my children. Deep breath, it will get done. I want to focus on being connected to my children instead.’
Nothing will change if you don’t extend some compassion to yourself here.
Yes, you may have shouted at your 4 year old when he was pushing boundaries like every four year old does. But you also did a full day’s work, had to deal with a grumpy husband, fielded 500 ‘why’ questions from your 7 year old, and your period started. Is it any wonder that your patience ran out?
This is where you need to take a deep breath, and instead of listening to those critical thoughts, tell yourself it’s all OK. This is a human reaction to a demanding situation. Then you can enquire gently about what’s underneath, what’s the story you are telling yourself here, what do you and your child need to feel better, and how can you set intentions and practice reacting a different way in future?
Exploring this with non-judgemental curiosity might reveal that you feel guilty about going back to work fulltime, even if you know it’s the right thing for you. Or maybe you’re just exhausted and need a good sleep, a night out with the girls or weekend away on your own (bliss).
Maybe you are blaming your husband for not helping more, and realise you actually need to ask him for help rather than alternating between Superwoman and Martyr without actually talking to him about what you need.
Self-critical thoughts are trying to help
Our self-critical thoughts are trying to keep us safe and beyond judgement from others. This is impossible, because we can’t control what other people think of us. Knowing that it is our hard-wiring that is motivating those critical thoughts is incredibly liberating. It means we can stop taking them so seriously.
When we don’t take our thoughts, emotions and ourselves so seriously we don’t get so triggered and injured by them. When we are not so affected by them we keep our emotional equilibrium more easily, have a more positive outlook on life, and can focus on the good stuff instead.
Making the world a better place – which is the vision of One of many – starts with changing your internal world. Every person who learns to manage their automatic, fear-based critical thoughts and behaviours creates a positive ripple effect within their families and communities, workplaces and society. Self-awareness, a compassionate attitude and mindful attention are the foundations for this.
How about you?
Do you experience self-critical thoughts? Do you have any other tips or advice to share with others, or questions to ask about Thea’s process?
Leave a comment and let us know.
Thea is one of our Certified Women’s Coaches, and is an in-house coach on our Lead the Change and Be Powerful Programmes.
Our intention is simple. To support professional women to handle the day-to-day so they can unleash the bigger impact they feel called to make in the world.
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Thea's mission is to help women feel at peace with themselves - because only then can they make their biggest and boldest contributions to their families, communities and the world.