Original article published March 2019
Good relationships are important to your mental health. You have probably heard this said a million times. One oft-neglected relationship is particularly important. It’s not with your parents or siblings, your partner, or your closest friend. It is your relationship with yourself. Under normal circumstances, this relationship is non-problematic for most. However, when life turns difficult and things don’t go your way, you may find that you turn on yourself.
I have noticed that many people, myself included, are more impatient and critical of themselves than they are with others. We may be kind and cordial to everyone else, supporting them through their breakups and hardships, but when it comes to ourselves, we find fault and blame.
Whether you occasionally call yourself names or nitpick your every move, you probably speak a lot more rudely to yourself than to others. You may berate yourself for negative outcomes, even when circumstances are beyond your control. You chastise yourself, “How could I have been so dumb?” (Why are we so surprised when we act dumb? I can vouch from firsthand experience that being dumb is the easiest thing in the world!) Even when we are heartbroken by a loss, there is a tendency to feel guilty in addition to sad. This is perfectly “normal” behavior and it makes us miserable. The intention of the internal critic is good, but the outcome is devastating.
Life is difficult and everyone flubs up not just a little, but a lot. Those are exactly the times, when it is important to be kind, gentle, and forgiving with yourself. It may seem more natural to give yourself a good firm scolding, but that actually weakens you when strength is most needed. Thankfully, self-criticism, like any habit, can be broken if noticed. Here are three ways to be your own best friend, instead of your biggest critic:
1. Notice how you speak to yourself by noticing your mood. When you criticize yourself, you will generally feel inadequate, ashamed or guilty. A good rule of thumb is never to say anything to yourself that is too mean to say to a good friend. For example, your friend just called you up for some consolation because they gambled and lost $1000 in a river cruise. Would you rip them a new one or would you help them feel better?
2. Follow (my proposed addendum to) the “Golden Rule”: “Do unto yourself as you would do unto others.” There is some research into what is referred to as “positive self-talk.” What has been found to be most useful is to speak encouragingly to yourself in the second or third person. So instead of saying, “I” say “you” or call yourself by your first name (if you are on a first name basis). For example, “You did your best. It was harder than you thought. Next time will be better.” You may find that a little forgiveness goes a long way to easing your mind and helping you live with yourself.
3. Be forgiving with yourself. I work with a teenager who is very hard on herself and feels inadequate a lot of the time as a consequence. Like a lot of people who are self-critical, she is a perfectionist. She really liked this example I shared with her. I told her, if you had a toddler just learning to walk and he fell, would you call him a klutz or an idiot and tell him he will never learn to walk? Or would you say, “That’s ok, let’s try again” and encourage him. She has been treating herself in a forgiving manner, which she calls “babying myself” and has found that she is happier.
You may say, “I’m not a toddler and I should know better.” I will recount one of my favorite sayings, which is by Mark Twain. He said, “Experience is recognizing a mistake every time you make it.” We will repeat the same mistakes over and over again because change is difficult. But finally, we learn and just like that, another mistake comes along….time to be understanding and forgiving, again.
When I started to write this article, I bumped up against my nemesis, the internal literary critic that feels obligated to sprinkle words of discouragement whenever I try to write something. I began scouring my mind for ways to weasel out of writing this because I suddenly felt so ill-equipped. I try to take my own advice sometimes. Doing so, I said to myself, “Dorrit, you can do this. You have written a million papers for school and they all turned out fine in the end.” With that little reminder, I was able to write the article which you have just read. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fast but it is done and you too can do what you need to do with a little help from your internal critic turned friend.
Looking for more tips and guidance? JFS Orlando’s counselors are specialized in various areas and are here to support you. Telehealth counseling appointments now available! Medicare, Medicaid, and almost all insurances are accepted. Sliding scale available for those who do not have insurance or have an insurance we do not accept.
Dorrit Ram, LCSW, earned a Masters in Social Work (MSW) from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She is a licensed clinical social worker experienced in providing psychotherapy to teenagers and adults with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, dissociative disorders, addiction, autism, and intellectual disability. She specializes in working with people who have experienced childhood trauma.
Dorrit utilizes an eclectic therapeutic style and a little humor to help people regain a lost connection to themselves. She offers habit reversal training for common body-focused repetitive disorders such as nail biting, skin picking, and trichotillomania (hair pulling).
Dorrit thinks that therapy is a great way to gain insight, develop self-acceptance, and make lasting changes. She conducts therapy sessions in English, Spanish, and Hebrew.