The problem with being your own worst critic…

We all talk to ourselves – maybe out loud, but definitely through an inner dialogue. Over the years I have met and spent time with many individuals who care for people with dementia. One thing many of them have in common is that despite trying their best under the most difficult of circumstances, they often seem to be overly hard on themselves and are forever saying they aren’t doing a good enough job. How about you? Is your inner voice a little harsh and self-critical sometimes? Clinical Psychologists often work with people who are experiencing depression, anxiety or a pervading dissatisfaction with life. One theme that is often apparent in my work is how often people have a really poor relationship with themselves.

For many of us, our default inner voice is one of unconstructive self-criticism. We blame ourselves when things go wrong, we lack self-compassion, and we shine a spotlight on what we perceive as our own flaws. This can lead to anxiety and low mood. But often, there is another difficulty that sits alongside this: we don’t have a good relationship with ourselves. We are often quite distant with ourselves. That might sound strange, but often we don’t stop to think about what our values are, our likes and dislikes, what we want out of life, even how we feel when we’re doing certain things. Our tendency to be on auto-pilot can lead to us feeling disconnected from life, but also from ourselves!

It is well known that having good relationships with others is a positive thing and can be a source of social support and happiness. When relationships with important people in our lives are struggling there are things we may try to do to improve these, for example, spending more quality time together, improving communication styles and seeking advice from others. If I asked you how you are getting along with someone important in your life you could probably give me an answer relatively easily. However, if I was to ask you what your relationship is like with yourself maybe that might be more difficult to respond to.

So, what’s a way forward? Well, a good start would be to start noticing your inner dialogue. Notice how often you criticise yourself. Most of the time, we’re not even aware we’re doing it. Ask yourself, would you be comfortable talking to a loved one like this? If not, why is it acceptable for you to be on the receiving end of this critical self-talk? We all feel inadequate and low sometimes, but noticing how you are feeling and bringing a sense of kindness, acceptance and compassion towards ourselves is a positive step in the right direction.

As a Clinical Psychologist, my approach with clients is integrative; by that I mean that I use a range of evidence-based psychological therapies to help people in the best way possible. One of the therapeutic approaches I use is called Compassion-Focussed Therapy. This can be really beneficial in helping people to develop a healthier relationship with themselves and the people around them. One thing I encourage carers to do is to imagine you are talking to someone you love. Can you begin to talk to yourself in this way – with kindness, gentleness and encouragement? This is actually much harder than you would think and takes some practice as often you will be breaking the habit of a life-time. But it’s worth it!

When helping people to develop self-compassion, it’s not about trying not to focus on the parts of ourselves or our lives that we don’t like, or attempting to somehow ‘get rid’ of our anger, anxiety or hedonistic desires. Instead, being truly self-compassionate is about turning towards these aspects of ourselves, holding them in a more compassionate view, and developing the wisdom to know how to live with and work with them. The important thing is to find a different way of dealing with your difficult emotions, rather than trying to avoid having them at all. When life is really tough, finding new ways to cope with intense emotions is possible. Even a moment of self-compassion can make a difference to your day. It’s not self-indulgent; it’s actually an act of survival.

Dr Gemima Fitzgerald
Resilience Consultant