5 Ways to Challenge Your Internal Critic

loving self image
“I can never do anything right” . “I always say the dumbest things”. “Why am I so stupid?”. Have you ever said these things to yourself? If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you have. Often. However, if these thought patterns continue as a form of running commentary all day every day (meaning they are left virtually unattended), they have potentially damaged your sense of self. We get so used to these whisperings that we do not even notice they are there. So they shape our lives.

According to a type of psychotherapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), our mind is like a master storyteller continuously telling us stories. It is in a constant monologue with us from the second we wake until the second we go to sleep. In fact, even as we sleep our storyteller continues to tell its stories or replay memories (often painful ones). According to this approach, very little of what your ‘storyteller’ (your mind) tells you (via thoughts) is fact where there is a ‘true’ and ‘false’. Rather, the stories are opinions, judgements, criticisms, beliefs, assumptions, and ideals. They are simply a reflection of the way you see the world. And these stories can be changed. So, the mind creates a narrative based on interpretation. Once formed, this narrative is hard to dismantle.

A thought is just a thought. It is neither ‘you’ nor reality. It arises, lingers in consciousness for a relatively short while then fades. It is just a mental event that passes through the mind like clouds or weather patterns passing through the sky. We are always explaining the world to ourselves, and we react emotionally to these explanations rather than to the facts. All the feelings we feel are brought on not by the events in our lives, but rather the interpretation of these events.

We can be drawn into thinking our thoughts are true and they are us and we are them. Once we become them we can fall into ruminative brooding, basically going over and over an event in our minds, all the while pushing our emotional buttons and increasing our stress and anxiety levels, causing overwhelming demoralising feelings.

The ‘blueprint’ for how we treat ourselves was formed when we were children via the emotional availability of our parent or main caregiver . When an infant cries, the emotionally attuned parent attends to the infant. The process that ensues of soothing, reassurance and nurturance are all displays of ‘love’ that, when repeated hundreds of times per day, are critical to that infant’s identity development and sense of self.

So, why is it that the same person with the same ideals can be the nurturing, kind, positive support to their best friend when something goes wrong yet be the harsh, rude and stern internal critic to themself when they face the same type of experience? Do you treat yourself the way you would like others to treat you?

Try these 5 immediate ways to challenge your internal critic as outlined in The Happiness Trap (they’re so simple they may seem unrealistic, but they work):

1. Anytime you feel stressed, anxious or depressed ask yourself ‘what is my mind telling me now?’ Then ask yourself “Is this thought helpful? Does it make me the person I want to be?” If it is unhelpful, practice being more mindful of it using the techniques below.

2. When a distressing thought arises, repeat the thought in your head after inserting this phrase: “I’m having a thought that…”. When you practice this repeatedly you will find some distance being created as if you have ‘stepped back’ from the unpleasant thought.

3. Identify your mind’s favourite demoralising stories then give them names, such as ‘The Loser Story or the I’m Worthless Story. Then, when they pop up say ‘Ah yes, I recognise this familiar story’.

4. When a common self-critical thought comes into your head, defuse its hold on you by singing it to yourself to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ or another tune. As you practice this over time you will realise the thought is simply a collection of words, just like the lyrics of a song.

5. Remember, the story is the story. The story is NOT the event. Avoid holding on to these too tightly.

By practicing letting go of disparaging and demoralising thoughts, we are removing the shackles that keep us trapped in the prison of our own minds. Only then can we begin to learn how to observe the same respect for ourselves that we so readily offer others.

As the common Buddhist saying goes: “You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere”.

References and further reading:
The Happiness Trap, by Russ Harris.

The Mindful Way Through Depression. Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

By: Alison Lenehan
Psychologist, Alpha Psychology

R U OK?

Today is National R U OK Day. The message is simple – ask those around you: “Are you OK?”

R U OK Day encourages people to ask those around them – friends, family, colleagues – R U OK? Relationships are crucial to who we are, and just those three little words could mean so much to someone who is struggling. People each other all the time, but how much do we really listen? In such a busy world, it can be hard to find the time. But by making the time, you can help people to feel cared about, and know that they are not alone.

As humans, we tend to work in ‘problem solving mode’ for a good portion of the time. Feeling hungry? Grab a snack or make a meal. Need a new hairdresser? Ask around to see if anyone you know has a good one. Can’t find your car keys? Ask your spouse to help you look for them. But when it comes to our emotions, humans are pretty complicated beings. Sometimes people aren’t able to explain why they are feeling a certain way and a common response can be to try and ‘fix’ the problem. While sometimes this can lead to a positive, empowering response in the person, at other times it can leave them feeling as though they haven’t been heard. Sometimes if someone is having a hard time the best thing you can do is to listen – allow them to feel heard and let them know you are there for them. And of course, if they need to speak to a professional then encourage or help them to do that.

So make the effort, take the time, and ask away. You may be surprised at what you hear. And while you may not feel as though you can do anything, that simple act of asking, caring, and listening can mean a lot.

It could be the most important question you ask someone today – or any other day: R U OK?

 https://www.ruokday.com

If you or someone you know needs support, see your local GP or phone Lifeline on 13 11 44. If it is an emergency, phone 000 or go to your nearest hospital.

Be en-courage-d to walk on…

 

By Shannon Gostelow

Provisional Psychologist

supervised by Julie Crabree, Lyn Worsley and Sylvia Ruocco

 

‘Courage doesn’t always roar.

Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying

“I will try again tomorrow”

 

The above quote stopped me in my tracks.

It was printed up on a local notice board. I pass that notice board most days. But this day I stopped. Momentarily caught by the words and the idea that came from them. A tumble of thoughts fell out. (Possibly even audibly…;))

I instantly considered the word’ courage’ in a different light. It was being metaphorically described using opposite words e.g. ‘quiet voice’ and ‘roar’! And it gave emphasis to the importance and validity of the ‘quiet voice’. Not the ‘roar’. It suggested that it is just as courageous to quietly persevere day by day as it is to brandish your sword and dive ‘once more unto the breach dear friends’ (Shakespeare:)).

Is this true? Is it just as courageous to get up and try again as it is to act heroically with great physical valor? Is it an act of great courage to keep persisting despite the difficulty? What does psychology say about it?

Well psychology tends to agree.

Key researchers and academics Seligman and Peterson (2004) explain courage as:

the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal.

 (Or in the colloquial words of John Wayne “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”)

The researchers add that courage is a character strength happily situated amid the lofty heights of the strengths of wisdom, justice and humanity. Not bad. Furthermore, these researchers suggest courage is made up of several parts, i.e. bravery, persistence, integrity and vitality.

Pausing there a moment… bravery…yes that’s commonly associated with courage. Integrity and vitality are the reasons for, and strength of, the brave act…but persistence…? There it is again. The concept of persistence is also inherent in well trotted out sayings like ‘‘get back up on the horse’ and ‘if at first you don’t succeed try, try again.’ These age old proverbs aptly describe persistence but do not necessarily advocate it as courage. However, in the above researched description persistence is a completely valid form of courage. So…the ‘quiet voice’ that whispers to try again tomorrow? Officially validated.

What we have is that bravery ‘roars’ and perseverance is the ‘quiet voice.’

However BOTH display courage.

Another psychology researcher (Putnam, 1997) considers courage to be of a physical, moral or psychological nature with:

i)physical courage characterised by overcoming fear of physical harm,

ii) moral courage characterised by overcoming fear of social disapproval or rejection of one’s moral integrity and

iii) psychological courage characterised as overcoming fear of the pain in confronting fears, anxieties and mood instabilities.

Lets look at these in terms of some examples.

The western social and cultural emphasis on physical acts of bravery constituting courage is fairly entrenched. It seems that our society doesn’t often equate quiet perseverance with noisy brave feats, nor does it usually consider both to be courageous. For example, one rather more readily thinks of the heroic actions of a surf life saver swimming out to save a child caught in a rip when one thinks of a courageous person. Right?

Somehow the person persistently working with the homeless each day and fighting for some dignity for them doesn’t conjure ‘a courageous person’. A selfless, kind, humanitarian person perhaps…but not a courageous one…The perception of society clouds the view because, in essence, both surf lifesaver and aid worker are people acting courageously. They are simply different sides of the same coin. One is a more physical bravery, the other a more moral persistence. Both display courage.

There are many mental health concerns that require great perseverance in addressing psychological symptoms until they become manageable for example eating disorders, some personality disorders and chronic depression or anxiety.

*So HOW can one persevere and be courageous?

  1. With simply an awareness that by persisting you are courageously helping the situation. For example, if you are being guided by a therapist and you are persevering in addressing your mental health symptoms, then you are making a difference in your own journey to better health and your actions are psychologically courageous.
  2. Work on choosing optimism more often. Optimism assists perseverance because it is associated with positive mood and more effective problem solving. Optimism involves explaining ‘bad’ circumstances as external (it is due to other factors not me), unstable (it can change and get better) and specific (there is a reason which can be learnt from).
  3. If you have children start them learning persistence early on. It gives them their best chance. We live in a society where we constantly try to shield and perhaps ‘protect’ ourselves and others from hardship-there are positives about this of course, however, it also has the capacity to make it difficult to learn perseverance and apply it when it is necessary. How much or little perseverance one has is significantly shaped and honed through childhood. So teach and encourage children to ‘try again’ and applaud the attempt regardless of the result. They will build up a bank of perseverance and courage and may more successfully push through adversity where others struggle.

Our society squarely places emphasis on courage as being physical acts of great bravery, relegating ‘trying again’ to the side of the road and labeling it as ‘not succeeding.’

This could not be further from the truth.

Armed with the information about the true psychological nature of courage which recognises the inherent value of ‘trying again’, I say be en-couraged to persist in the face of obstacles and listen to the courageous whisper to ‘try again tomorrow’ 🙂

In her recent blog, Clinical Psychologist Christina Ott exhorted compassion and courage be adopted in equal measure in life…

…which includes that quiet voice, the ‘unnoticed’ tasks, the attitude to persevere and face fears, and the decisions to choose integrity.

They all have value and, without roaring, exhibit great courage.

References

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. (2000). The future of optimism. American Psychologist, 55(1), 44-55.

Putman, D. (1997). Psychological courage. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 4(1), 1-11.