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Replacing the Self Critic

My previous blog looked at the self critic – and this blog looks at ways of replacing the self critic.

What do we mean when we talk about the self critic? Too many of us are quietly, privately, hard on ourselves. We walk around with an inner critic, telling us we’re not ‘good enough’ and will never amount to anything. It shouts at us after a difficult run in with our boss: “You are a total idiot! Why did you say that? He will sack you now!”

Paul Gilbert at the University of Derby, has spent his academic career researching the valuable role that the practices of compassion and self-compassion can have on both ourselves as individuals but also on society as a whole. His research has shown that not only does the self critic make our lives rather miserable, but it often underpins problematic relationships with drugs, alcohol, food or work, in the attempt to find some relief, as well as mental health problems including depression and chronic shame. He stresses that negative self-talk is not evidence of something “wrong” with us that needs to be fixed; it is a feature of being human.

Surviving in today’s world

Much of modern life is geared towards competition – from our economic system, modelled around the assumption of scarcity, to our entertainment, where reality television contestants fight to avoid elimination. All of this triggers our threat system, bringing out the worst in our primitive brains. Gilbert says that our self-criticism is an entirely reasonable response to “swimming in a river that we shouldn’t be swimming in”, he says. We live in a society that is constantly, from the day we are born, judging, evaluating, rating and ranking us – we are simply doing the very best we can, to deal with this. 

A self compassion exercise to replace the self critic

This simple exercise has three steps:

Step one Be Aware

In step one, all you need to do is notice when you are being critical of yourself and take note of the words,  the tone and the phrases that you use with yourself.  The goal of this step is to simply get a sense of how you talk to yourself when you are criticising yourself or being negative about yourself. This isn’t easy – this all happens on automatic pilot – and it might make you feel a bit uncomfortable or even bring  difficult or intense emotions, but remember that the next two steps are meant to help you become more positive about yourself. You’ll get there!

Step two Talk Back

In step one, you begin to challenge the negative self-talk. Begin to “talk back” to the critical voice in your head. Don’t take on the same critical tone with this voice in your head or try to fight or argue with it. Although you may want to be nasty to this voice, that will just encourage self-judgment instead of self-compassion! Tell the voice that you understand that the voice is nervous, anxious, or worried about getting hurt, but that it is causing you unnecessary pain. Ask the critical voice to allow your compassionate self to speak for a few moments.

Step three Reframe

Finally, work on reframing the observations made by the critical voice. Put them in a more positive perspective. Instead of allowing the critical voice to berate you for a choice you made, imagine that you are talking to a really good friend and being as kind and supportive as you possibly can be. For example, if you feel horrible for saying something mean to a friend, don’t allow your critical voice to have full control in your mind. Let your compassionate self take over and say something like, “I know you made a mean comment to your daughter and that you feel bad about it. You thought it might feel good to get that off your chest, but you just felt worse after. That’s tough. I want you to be happy, so please think about calling your daughter and apologising. It will feel good to make up with her.”

You can even pair this positive self-talk with loving physical gestures, like stroking your arm or giving yourself a hug. However you do it, engaging in this kind of positive self-talk will help you to start being more kind to yourself, which will eventually lead to genuine feelings of warmth and love for yourself.     Paul Gilbert UK 

Guided meditations  Kristen Neff   Chris Germer Paul Gilbert

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also: Self-Compassion, 

Self-Compassion Tools

Tools of Self-Compassion