I'm yet to meet someone with good self-esteem and no inner critic which is a sad statement to make (to be fair, they probably exist but I just don't come across them... After all, they sound like quite boring people if they have no darkness, right?) but, nevertheless, the truly sad thing is that none of us are born with low self-esteem or with an inner critic. I often say - tongue-in-cheek - that we're all born raging narcissists. For when we're born, we have no problem expressing our needs quite vocally (food, change of diaper, sleep, cuddles, pain) and we are, literally, inable to see or understand the world from anyone else's point of view for quite some time.
But what, heartbreakingly, happens over time is that our environment (our parents, peers, siblings, society, cultural norms, etc) makes us think we're not good enough just the way we are, that we should behave in a certain way to gain attention and love, look a certain way to adhere to societal standards, that our worth is measured in our external outputs rather than our personality and inner strengths and we're criticised and rejected in so many ways and places that slowly but surely, we learn to silence our needs because they are either not met or they're not found to be acceptable. We learn that our worth is tied up in whether we tidy our rooms, finish or dinner, look pretty, show that we're smart or 'behave well' because that's, usually, when we're told that we're 'good girls' or 'good boys'. Much like the school systems takes everything that's creative and uniquely us out of us and mould us into these conformist robots, who learn to supress their needs for movement, laughing loudly, fidigting, eating when we want or use the toilet when we want and express ourselves creatively. We learn that our worth is tied up in sitting still, being quiet, answering questions (over that of critical thinking), memorising facts and getting good grades. We're harhly marked down for our mistakes and laughed at by the other children if we mess up. Mistakes become something to fear, something that turns from being a mistake to us being the mistake. We learn to personalise failures, thinking it has something to do with our characters instead of simply something to do with a situation and outcome.
And some are unlucky enough to have neglectful and harmful parents and/or experience years of bullying.
Eventually, we all develop some form of perfectionism, comparing ourselves to others and finding ourselves falling short, feeling like imposters because we're hiding our true self and feelings to fit in, becoming people pleasures to some degree to minimise the sting of rejection and we develop this coping mechanism of criticising ourselves first before anyone else can manage to somehow soften the blow of other people's hurtful words.
All of these are acts of disrecept, unacceptance, rejection and unkindnesses towards ourselves and we cannot develop a healthy sense of worth, when we feel ashamed of how we are and who we are. Moreover, the more judemental we are towards ourselves the more judgemental we become towards others and whatever we dislike the most about ourselves we start to pick on on others, meaning we create distance instead of closeness with those around us - again, as a form of protective mechanism - but while craving deeper connections and thus feeling worse until it's all become one vicious circle you're going round and round in.
There is no quick fixes for this.
When you've walked into the woods for 100 miles, you cannot expect to be able to make your way out again in 5 minutes.
The same goes for your inner work. When you've been unkind and disrespectful towards yourself for decades, you won't be able to change that mindset overnight or via a couple of therapy sessions.
Nor can you talk your way out of it. No amount of talking and processing your feelings can make you feel better about yourself. That's kind of like trying to lose weight while sitting on the sofa, eating cakes and watching arobic videos. You have to take action. But, talking about your feelings is a very helpful process in terms of developing a greater awareness around your patterns and triggers. And awareness leads to being able to take the right kind of action to 're-wire' your brain towards better and kinder habits. Much like learning about nutrition and safe exercises are important parts to become aware of before you start a new exercise routine.
Some people advocate positive affirmation to get yourself to like yourself again, others suggest loving-kindness meditation, or learning about self-compassion and self-acceptance and there are many other ways to think about liking yourself and I do recommend trying all sorts of methods but what I've found is that it's a lot easier to take action than to try and think yourself well. Much like you wouldn't try to think yourself out of a cold, you'd be more likely to take action in form of keeping warm, eating well, taking pills.
Trying to convince yourself that you like yourself if you don't, via powerful thinking, is really hard. Try instead to make decisions and act in a way that's respectful and kind towards youself even if you think you don't deserve it. Eventually, a new, kinder habit will form and it'll become a more natural and normal thing for your brain to do than the previous disrespectful and unkind decisions you'd been making before.
Some advertise telling your inner critic (that voice that tells you that you're not good enough or that you're a fuck-up, or that you're an emberrrassment or unlovable) to shut up and fuck off. I don't. For me that's fighting hate with hate. You're just fueling your brain with even more disrespect and unkindness. Rather, treat it like the scared child that it is. The child that's trying to protect itself from harm, from ridicule, from rejection. Talk to it tenderly and with understanding like you would an actual child who came to you and shared they had unkind or even hateful thoughts about themselves. Talk to it with understanding as to why it's there. Again, that is an act of kindness and you're fighting the critical voice with kind and respectful action, by using a compassionate voice in return.
Now, much like with growing muscles or becoming fit, you can't just do this once in a while if you want to see long-lasting results. You have to practice this sort of respectful and kind decision making and compassionate self-talk every single day and for the rest of your life. Just like running one marathon once means you'll be physical fit for life, becoming mentally fit and healthy won't last either if you only make the effort once for the rest of your life.
There's also the art of learning what your inner critic is actually trying to tell you. It might use simple language like 'I'm stupid' or 'I'm useless' or 'I'm unlikeable' or 'I'm a fuck-up' but it might actually be saying 'I'm scared of being dumped by my partner because I was rejected as a child and that still hurts'. Or, 'I haven't had enough or good quality sleep for a few days and it's impacting my ability to think clearly and kindly'. Or, 'I used to be belittled for not knowing enough, so now I worry about being seen as stupid'. Or, 'I haven't connected enough with others or been out in nature for a long time and it's impacting my mental health.' Or, 'I'm not living a good life. I'm stuck - I don't like my job/relationship/living situation, but I feel able to make changes'.
It's also a helpful technique to not over-identity with the inner critic and this might sound a bit useless in its simplicity but try to change 'I' statements to 'I notice that my inner critic is saying...'. So, for example, instead of thinking 'I'm stupid', try to change that statement to 'I notice that my inner critic is calling me stupid'. You might also want to give the inner critic a name (there was a certain period of my time in private practice where many people called it 'Donald' or 'Trump' but you might also name it after the key person who made you feel not good enough as a child, or give it a name of someone you don't like, or of a creature (The Darkness or even just The Critic), so you could say, for example, 'I'm noticing that The Critic is telling me I'm a fuck-up because my partner isn't happy.' And then go on to ask, what is The Critic trying to really communicate, such as 'I'm so used to being criticised and rejected, I'm just assuming that my partner's unhappiness is about me, instead of actually paying attention to what they're saying. My assumptions and taking things personal is preventing me to fully hear and understand them.'
Bearing in mind that, unfortunately too often, our partners do talk to us in a disrespectful or unkind way because they're dealing with their own critic and are projecting their own dislike for themselves onto their loved ones. But even then we can talk to our inner critic by saying 'The Critic is taking my partner's comments personally and it's telling me it's all my fault. And though I want to agree with my critic, I'm going to make the decisions that's kind and respectful towards myself and instead of assuming I am to blame, I'll choose to believe my partner is hurting and taking it out on me. I'll also choose to hear their complaint as that there is a problem - which can be solved - rather than me being the problem and that being unfixable.'
But trying to figure out where our low self-esteem or inner critic stem from, or when and how it's triggered or which of our beliefs are rooted in unhelpful coping stategies that once served us but no longer do and to notice when we're making unkind assumptions about ourselves and others can be hard to do on our own. That's why professional support like talk-therapy or seeing a coach can really help us to gain perspective and learn to see things in a different light.
You can book a free, 20-minute, Zoom call with me to see if we're a good fit if you'd be interested in talking more about this with me. You can book this here...
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, or didn't, or want to add something or have a question, feel free to comment below (but try and be kind about it - I'm a terribly sensitive soul).
Don't forget that this is just my opinion. You don't have to agree. These pieces of writing are just here to make you think and take from it what you like and find helpful and ignore the rest. At the end of the day, it's your life and, therefore, what you consume, what you believe, and what you think and feel is your choice.
Also, this article has been brought to you by a perfectly imperfect, flawsome dyslexic. I hope any potential spelling or grammar mistakes didn't take away from your enjoyment.
Meandering thoughts about life and the meaning of everything, from a know-it-not-all!