Could do better?
Self-evaluation can be an effective instrument, but if we have a small voice in our head telling us constantly about our shortcomings, that critical observation can begin to block the light and cause a downward emotional spiral.
Negative thoughts like these are learned. We are not born self-critical. So how have we learned to think like this? As children, we may internalise negative experiences from parents, teachers and others by becoming withdrawn, sad, feeling unloved, imagining that we could have done better. Another theory suggests that genetically, we may be predisposed to look inwardly and seek personal flaws. Whatever the reason, we may end take viewpoint that we are not architects of our own accomplishments; success is always down to luck or someone else’s abilities, while failure is due to our personal error.
As this becomes an ingrained pattern, we may not even notice it. Often it is our friends or family members who point these traits out to us. “Why do you beat yourself up?” is a common question.
Because our thoughts dictate our feelings and in turn our behaviours, being overly and constantly self-critical can lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Putting ourselves down can open us up to being treated inappropriately by others, which may make us wonder why we seem often to be on the receiving end of negative influences. “Why does it always happen to me?” is a typical response.
A positive perception of ourselves, on the other hand, provides an energy and attractiveness that can help us draw positive outcomes into our lives. We probably all know someone who is able to talk objectively but positively about their own achievements without appearing conceited. Somehow that positivity creates its own magic. What we expect is often what we get. It is what we call a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So how do we silence the critical voice?
Count your victories
Research has shown that people who seek perfection in themselves often seek out negative memories which confirm how far they are from their ideal1. Recalling and replaying positive memories, however, can repair low mood2. Some cultures discourage outward shows of accomplishment and place an emphasis on modesty. But bringing out your light, to yourself (always) and to others (on occasion) can help us feel better about ourselves and begin to banish the critical inner voice.
Writing a brainstorm of past achievements on a timeline can help us connect with our successes, conquer embarrassment and learn a new way of seeing ourselves. Continuing by writing a daily log of accomplishments helps to form a positive habit. Another option is to notice our thoughts and disassociate ourselves from them. Start with : “That’s the critical head dropping its poison in again.”
In a time where we are striving to be the best mother, father, partner, employee, son, daughter, student – fuelled by our own conscience and the media images to which we are exposed – it is time to remember we are good enough. Just as we are. With our flaws and errors. We have made mistakes but have got it right far more often. We are doing our best as human beings.
Find the feelgood factors
If we can acknowledge that we are good enough, then we can accept that we deserve to be happy and that our happiness is not contingent on what we do, but on who we are. This fosters the core belief that we can indulge in activities that make us feel uplifted, energised or simply contented.
Wellbeing can be fostered by a ‘duvet day’ with a good book or film, having coffee with a close friend, opening the paint box, playing a musical instrument or any of a million things that may gladden the soul. We do not always have to be earning, producing or caring for others. We can go off the ‘production grid’ and just be.
Get out more
Research has shown that access to green space improves mental wellbeing and also assists in recovery3. A minimum of 15 minutes in the sunshine each day with sleeves rolled up is likely to give the body its requisite amount of vitamin D. Studies have explored a link between vitamin D efficiency and low mood. But are there other aspects to green space access that we should be thinking about? Studies by Ulrich (1979, 1981, 1984, 1991b, 2002) showed that just viewing the natural environment goes beyond aesthetic pleasure to include greater emotional well-being, reduced stress and better health. Gall bladder patients exposed to views of nature or trees had shorter post-operative stays, required less pain relief, and received better staff evaluations than their counterparts given a view of a wall.
It is reasonable to ascribe some feelings of wellbeing to the sensory input derived from being outdoors. The sound of the elements, fragrance of plants, sunlight, colour, movement. Before humans walked the earth, plant-life was here. Is it any wonder our primitive selves want to connect with it?
Review your social connections
People who are self-critical often feel they have the friends they deserve. When we are emotionally robust and clear headed, we can step back and assess which friends bring us joy and which sap us of positive energy.
There are many ways to define friendship. If we seek friends solely in order not to be alone, we can end up with superficial relationships, or even toxic ones. Companionship at any cost can be dangerous. Reliable, thoughtful, kind friends, on the other hand are one of the greatest assets to our happiness and wellbeing.
Marcel Proust commented that friends are ‘the charming gardeners that make our souls blossom’. Indeed, one way to look at friendship is as a state of mutual nurturing such that we can grow as individuals while still remaining connected to others. We encourage each other’s successes and share each other’s sorrows.
Be compassionate with yourself
Our unconscious mind believes the stories we tell it. Imagine someone who constantly tells us that we are not quite good enough and must try harder. If we constantly weave this story in our own minds, that is the message that our unconscious mind accepts as reality. The unconscious is not like our rational conscious mind; it accepts thoughts as truths and acts accordingly.
Theodore Roosevelt once said that comparison is the thief of joy. Comparing ourselves with others means we forget to nurture what is special and unique about ourselves. We give away our own power. What is more, we never know other people’s whole story. The svelte, wealthy woman stepping out of her four-by-four may have a difficult husband, an ailing parent, a problem with substance abuse. We simply don’t know. Few people have perfect lives. And that’s fine. And we are fine. Just as we are.
Ask for help
There are many forms of help out there. Talking to a qualified experienced therapist about your thought patterns can be liberating in itself. Learning how to retrain your thought patterns can be rewarding and life changing. Solution Focused methods guide the individual to look at how a future life could be without the struggle of self-criticism, and to find building blocks towards that future.
Find out more about Solution Focused therapy here: www.nowflourish.net
1 Besser, A., Flett, G. L., Guez, J., & Hewitt, P. L. (2008). Perfectionism, Mood, and Memory for Positive, Negative, and Perfectionistic Content. Individual Differences Research, 6(4).
2 Werner-Seidler, A., & Moulds, M. L. (2012). Mood repair and processing mode in depression. Emotion, 12(3), 470.
3 Morris, N. (2003). Health, well-being and open space. Edinburgh: Edinburgh College of Art and Heriot-Watt University.
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