By Cheryl Rainfield
Negative or critical voices interfere with people feeling good about themselves, or feeling good at all. Sometimes those critical voices are so loud that’s all you can hear — and you miss out on your beauty, your growth, on the wonderful things you’re doing. This is especially true for anyone who heard constant critical or negative things about themselves growing up, or who’s experienced abuse. Then there are the criticisms that women, especially, absorb from advertisements, televison, and magazines. We may have heard horrible things said about ourselves so often that we came to believe them — or we may still have those messages running through our heads like a tape player — so softly we hardly hear them, but constant and always there, or so loudly they blot everything else out.
But there is a way to lessen the intensity of those critical voices, and let them give you a break. Read on for some suggestions. (Note: You don’t have to do all or even most of these things. Just find what works for you.)
1. Notice the Critical Messages
The first thing to do to help quiet self-criticism is to notice that it’s happening. Many people put themselves down or criticize themselves without even noticing they’re doing it. They might think that they’re being reasonable or objective or helpful. But criticizing yourself doesn’t help you at all — it just feeds more negative and self-harming thinking.
So how do you pay attention?
If you really can’t hear it in yourself, ask a friend or lover to point out when you’re criticizing yourself. Probably you do it a lot less out loud than you do in your own head, though, so this is just a starting point.
Try sitting with yourself quietly for a long time, and listen to what’s going on in the background. If it helps to write it out, do that. What do you hear?
2. Listen to the critical voices
Next, try listening to those critical voices. Find out exactly what they’re saying. The more we ignore something, the stronger it gets. It helps to acknowledge those critical voices, and to let them know you’ve heard them. And it can help to hear exactly what they’re saying. Try repeating their phrases aloud, or write them down.
3. Look at the Patterns
When you start to hear the negative messages, try to trace back when they started. Did you make a “mistake” and verbally slap yourself, or laugh at yourself before anyone else could? Did someone else say something that made you think they were putting you down? Did someone laugh at you when you were feeling vulnerable?
Try to notice every time a new onslaught of self-critical messages happens. Write it down. Become familiar with your triggers — what sets off that onslaught of criticism. Then try to recognize that trigger as soon as it happens, or as soon after it has happened as you can. When you see that pattern happening where critical messages are set off, try to step back a little and give yourself some compassion and distance. Remind yourself that you’re feeling particularly vulnerable, or hurt, or scared, and that you don’t need to be so harsh on yourself.
4. Trace the Messages Back to Their Roots
Look at the messages you hear in your head. Really analyze them. You had to get them from somewhere. Are any of them familiar? Did anyone tell you any of those messages when you were a child? Do they sound like your mother — or your father? Try to figure out when you first started “thinking” those phrases. Sometimes knowing where those messages come from can decrease their intensity. (Ah ha — that’s something my mother used to say to me. But she’s not right! I don’t need to carry her voice in my head any more.)
5. Have a Conversation With the Critical Voices
Have a conversation with your critical voices. It might help to do this on paper or at your computer so you can see it more clearly. Ask those critical voices what they need, and why they’re telling you such negative things about yourself. Ask them what they’re afraid of, and why they need to do what they do so strongly. Just let the answers come up and be there. Now is the time to listen.
Try not to be judgmental of those critical voices. It may help to realize that critical voices often come out of desperation and duress — such as a little child blaming herself instead of the adults who were hurting her, because it was safer to think that way. Often, behind all those negative messages and criticism is a lot of vulnerability, insecurity, and fear. If you can get in touch with that vulnerability, and understand where it’s coming from, you may find that the need to criticize yourself greatly diminishes.
6. Reassure the Critical Voices
If you’ve discovered that those critical voices feel insecure, vulnerable, or afraid of something, try to reassure those parts inside you. If you can meet the needs of those parts, the need to criticize you will decrease.
7. Recognize the Strength
Critical voices are often created as a means of self-protection — as a way of coping or surviving. For survivors of abuse and trauma, those critical voices may be the parts who absorbed all the negative messages, and allowed other parts of yourself to keep playfulness, happiness, or love intact. Other people may have felt safer taking on critical messages and turning those messages on themselves instead of blaming the adults around them or the people they loved, or they may use that negativity to suppress their inner beauty and uniqueness so they fit in better.
But you don’t have to be smaller than you are. And hurting yourself doesn’t stop others from hurting you. Acknowledge the strength and aid that those critical voices may initially have given you, and realize that you no longer need to use them the same way.
8. Give the Critical Messages a New Job
Those critical messages may have helped you survive — but now it’s time for something new. Something that helps you now.
Give those critical voices a new job they can do, instead of the one they originally took on. Try to talk to them. Thank them for the job that they did, protecting or helping you when you needed them to, and gently let them know that that job is no longer helpful — but that you have a new job that you desperately need filled. A new job that only they can do: protecting you from others’ criticism and negativity. Or giving you loving messages that build up your self-confidence. Or whatever job you can think of that is meaningful and will truly help.
This job has to be important. It can’t just be some willy nilly thing, or those parts won’t take you seriously. And it has to be something that is positive, something that is vital to feeling good. Something that you couldn’t do alone.
Those critical voices might not take you up on your offer the first time you talk to them. But if you let them know that they’re the only ones you think are strong enough to do it, or smart enough, or that they’re the ones who can do it best — and if you thank them in a real way for trying to protect you in the past, and let them know that this is the best way to protect you now, then those parts will, almost assuredly, come around. And you’ll have a strong team on your side. Because critical messages are very strong — but loving messages are even stronger.
9. Replace Those Messages With New, Loving Ones
Criticizing yourself probably served a purpose when you were a child, maybe even helped you cope or survive. You may have thought that if you criticized yourself first, it wouldn’t hurt so much when other people criticized you. Or you may have thought it would make others criticize you less, if you were the one to do it. Or perhaps you had no choice but to absorb some of the things that were constantly being said about you. Whatever the reason, criticizing yourself doesn’t help you now; it hurts you. And you don’t deserve to be hurt. So try to give yourself new, loving messages. Make up some new messages for yourself — and remind yourself of them all the time.
This is a great job for those critical voices. Ask them to do this for you. You need their help — and they can be powerful allies. Here’s how you (or they) can do it:
Every time you hear yourself start to criticize yourself, take a moment to notice that, and then give yourself a new, loving message. It often helps to write out those messages, and put them everywhere that you’ll find them. You can also ask a friend or lover to help feed back to you those loving messages. You may need to hear those loving messages from others for a while before you’re able to start giving them to yourself. But sometimes the most powerful messages come from your self.
Try to give as many loving messages to yourself as you can.
10. Release the Critical Messages
Try to release those critical and negative messages. You don’t deserve to be emotionally hammered. You deserve kindness, respect, and love — especially from yourself. Realize that playing critical messages in your head is a form of hurting yourself — and try to find the compassion for yourself to let go of those negative thoughts.
Some people like to make a ritual out of it — a tangible act that helps them to let it go, such as writing out the messages and burning or tearing them up. Others might visualize something that helps them to let it go, such as seeing the negative messages as red shapes (or whatever colour you choose), and pushing that out of their body. Use whatever method works best for you.
11. Be Compassionate With Yourself
More than anyone else in the world, you deserve your own compassion. You are the one who is with you always. And you are the one who, ultimately, can hurt yourself or heal yourself the most.
Withholding compassion from yourself doesn’t help you — and it doesn’t help the people you love, either. The more compassion and love you’re able to give yourself, the more you’re able to give others — both from your heart, and by example.
You deserve your compassion and love. You truly do. You won’t make yourself into a “better” person by criticizing yourself or being harsh with yourself. You won’t make people love you more by emotionally beating yourself up. But when you give yourself compassion, you open up your heart to yourself. You allow yourself to be all of who you are. And in blossoming into your own self, you encourage others to do the same. Love is given and received more easily — and you’ll feel better, happier, and more alive. Know that you are beautiful, and just right for how you need to be, the way you are.
12. Forgive Yourself
Whatever you think you’ve done wrong, whatever you judge yourself for, you probably judge yourself far more harshly than anyone else ever would. Let go of that judgement. Forgive yourself for everything that you hold criticism for. We all make mistakes, every one of us. We all have times that we can’t live up to our ideals. Ideals are good things — when we remember that it’s what we’re trying to reach, through practice and growth — and that we may not always be able to reach those goals.
Let yourself be. Let yourself know that you are doing your best. And in forgiving yourself, truly and wholeheartedly forgiving yourself, those critical voices will lose some of their power, and you will find you are more beautiful than you thought.
Letting go of critical messages can be hard to do. But criticizing yourself just continues the negativity that others tried to give you. It’s not the route to feeling good. Giving yourself loving messages is.
You can do it. You can find a way to lessen those critical voices, increase the loving messages, and eventually replace the old messages with new ones so that what becomes second nature is to praise yourself, to love yourself, to have compassion for yourself. And every little step you take along the way helps you, and shows your strength.
So next time you hear a critical message about yourself, take a moment to breathe, and then let that message go. Recognize the beauty in your soul — and give yourself the loving messages you need.
Cheryl Rainfield is an artist and writer. She has an
inspirational website that offers free loving e-cards, screensaver, articles, and virtual affirmation cards online.