“When I am yelling at myself, who is the real me?”

An intriguing question posed by I a very sharp woman trying to grasp the nature of self criticism and the way it rules her life.

We examined her criticisms of herself to hear how she might be damaging her own self-esteem, rather than waiting for life’s circumstances or other people to do the wounding.

When I asked what she said to herself, she replied with out a moment’s hesitation: “You are fat. You are ugly. You are stupid.” And I thought to myself that she only needed to add “You are crazy,” to hit Anne Wilson-Schaef’s 4 major targets for how people insult women. Only my client was doing it to herself.

I was interested, though, that she used the accusatory “You are..,” so i asked how she would finish the statement if she started it with ‘I.’ Again, without hesitation, she replied, “I am feeling fat.”

This shift from ‘You’ to ‘I’ spontaneously brought up a far less accusatory statement. Really, it was a description of a feeling, not an appraisal. So I wanted to know if she felt different when she said it that way. She puzzled for a moment before hitting on the idea that starting with ‘You’ was like shaking a finger at herself. It was evident the accusatory ‘You’ felt like an other voice judging her. The question was who was judging?

Well, who usually sits in judgement of any of us? Typically a parent started the judgement ball rolling, and that was true for my client in this case too. A parent’s voice is absorbed into us so thoroughly that if we do not deliberately identify and root out those parental judgements, we will repeat them to ourselves until we cannot discern the voice belongs to someone else. Now we carry out our own character assassination.

Of course you may have a voice saying wonderful, positive things as well. If we are lucky, a parent can cheer us on or an important adult in our past or present, such as a coach or mentor, can get into our heads with praise or encouragement. Those voices are not our own either, but when repeated often enough we can hear them as our own. But of course, we don’t perceive the positive voice that raises our self esteem to be a problem.

If you have that tendency to call yourself names or criticize your self or your actions, it may not be the “real you” talking. Consider that you just absorbed someone else’s negativity. How can you tell whether you really believe what you are telling yourself or not? Apply the “I/You analysis that my client did. If the statement starts with ‘You’ chances are good it is someone else’s voice doing the judging. That won’t be enough to stop you from doing it, but it is the place you have to start.

If you want to interrupt the self-esteem-lowering, negativity-promoting voice, you have to confront it.

  1. Identify that it is happening (and don’t yell at yourself for doing it!!)
  2. Ask yourself, “Is this true?” Remember that not everything you think is true. It might be a false belief that you are wrong, or stupid or beyond help. You may suspect it is not true even though, like my client, it is a feeling you have at the moment.
  3. Ask,” How does it affect me to believe this?” Typically, a negative accusatory statement does not motivate us to do better, try harder, or change for the best. It tends to deflate our mood and make us feel bad.
  4. To stop the criticism, try changing it a little.
  5. If you were to start the statement with ‘I’ how would it change?
  6. If you modulated the criticism to be less harsh, how would that feel to you? (For example, changing “You are so stupid,” to “You forgot that.”
  7. Then every time you do notice you are doing it, make that change immediately. It will help you get out of the habit of self-criticism.

One caveat to making this change to a gentler, kinder inner voice is that sometimes you will not remember that any person said the actual words you are hearing. The may be puzzling, but think about how often you react to a tone of voice or a look on someone’s face. It does not take words to communicate a judgement. You can still take it that criticism and give words to it when your parent is not there to give you ‘the look.’

Make yourself a promise today to not believe every unkind word you say to yourself. Each time you follow through on that you will move yourself out of your negative mood toward a more positive self.

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