During a dark time in my life, I stood in front of the bathroom sink, staring at a mirror full of sticky notes.
My therapist at the time told me to write down all the things I could think of that I liked about myself and put them somewhere I would have to look every single day.
I remember thinking this task was daunting. I was too familiar with this nagging voice in my head — one that sounded a lot like my own. It would remind me, “You aren’t good enough … you’re a failure … you’re stupid.” When I listened, I couldn’t see anything positive about myself.
But I racked my brain, mustered up what I could and began my self-love journey.
Self-criticism is a learned behaviour and takes root at an early age.
“If you’ve grown up in a highly critical family then you’re probably not going to be very self-compassionate,” says Channa Verbian, a registered social worker and Mindful Self-Compassion teacher with the University of California San Diego Centre for Mindfulness.
Self-criticism can be harmful to mental wellbeing. Research reveals links between self-criticism and depression. Another study shows depression can lead to self-criticism.
But Verbian has a solution.
“Practising self-compassion allows for you to let go of your inner critic,” she says.
I’ve worked with a number of counsellors to help me turn my criticism into compassion. Here’s what resonates most:
Notice when you are having self-critical thoughts
Verbian says you can’t practise self-compassion if you’re unaware of your self-critical thoughts. If you’re anything like I used to be, self-critical thoughts can replay whenever you get a moment to yourself. Walking through the subway, showering, washing the dishes. Being self-critical became my brain’s default mode, which made noticing these thoughts even harder.
Accept these thoughts
After noticing these self-critical thoughts, accept them. It is important to recognize we are all self-critical and it’s part of the human experience.
“I think it’s important to help people realize that they’re not alone and a lot of these feelings are really universal,” Verbian says. “There’s an idea in Buddhism about common suffering and I think we all share that sense of not always being compassionate with ourselves.”
Think of what you would say to a friend
During your next confrontation with your inner critic, imagine your best friend was going through the same situation. Think of what you would tell your friend and repeat those things to yourself. It may feel unnatural at first, but it gets easier. If you get really good at doing this, you may even replace your automatic self-criticizing thoughts.
When I started doing this, I thought it made me lazy. I could easily tell my friend it was okay they failed a test, but if I told myself the same thing I felt like I was giving myself a pass to fail next time. I used self-criticism as my main form of motivation, but this was hurting me. It wasn’t sustainable.
It turns out, self criticism is not a good motivator and can actually make it harder for you to act on your goals. Remember, you deserve kindness as much as anyone else.
Let go of comparisons
Social media was a huge source of stress and anxiety for me. I would constantly compare myself to others and feel like I didn’t measure up. I would tell myself I should be accomplishing more, travelling more, having more fun. Here’s where that “you’re not good enough” piece comes in.
Social comparisons can negatively impact our level of self-satisfaction and mood. I decided to deactivate my Facebook account for several years. This isn’t always feasible for everyone, but I highly recommend limiting the amount of time you spend on these apps.
Remember, social media feeds are highlight reels of people’s lives. On a broader scope, I tell myself that what other people do and accomplish have nothing to do with me.
Not everything is about you
It can be easy to blame ourselves when things go wrong. I did this a lot. If I was late to an important meeting, I should have woken up earlier. If I didn’t land that job I really wanted, I must have really messed up in the interview. If my close friend stopped talking to me, I must have done something wrong.
Take the time to recognize all the situational factors. Be mindful of what you control and what you don’t. After reflecting, I would instead tell myself that I woke up early enough for that meeting and couldn’t predict delays. That I was doing my best to be a good friend and maybe my friend was going through something personal.
It’s easy to blame ourselves because it’s often the easiest explanation, but recognize it isn’t the only explanation.
Forgive yourself for the decisions you’ve made
Sometimes I second guess the decisions I’ve made. I wonder how different my life would be if I made a different decision about my career, my past relationships, or if I had taken certain opportunities over others. It helps to tell myself that I made the best decision at the time with the information I had. That’s all I can ask of myself.
I’ve also criticized and shamed myself when my decisions have hurt others, telling myself I must be a terrible person. It’s important to separate person and intention from the problem. I may have done a bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person. I try my best to recognize that we are all human and we all make mistakes.
Accept yourself for who you are
Growing up, I was bullied about my nose. Over time I internalized this and hated the way it looked. Many years later in university, a classmate asked me if I had gotten my nose professionally done. He said he really liked the way it looked and wished he had one just like it.
This was a really important moment for me. It was the moment I realized that beauty is subjective. We all have something we don’t like about ourselves, but what you hate about yourself might be someone else’s #goals.
By Christina Gizzo
Image by Phoebe Maharaj