Ever wish you could take a break from negative thoughts—like take a vacation from your brain? Feel like you’re on a self-criticism merry-go-round that you can’t get off? Many people struggle with self-criticism, especially those in recovery from eating disorders. It can be easy to be hard on yourself in San Diego, as you see people around you splashing in the ocean and laying on the warm sand. You might think, “what’s wrong with me that I’m not like them?” Even on social media you see everyone else posting about how wonderful their lives are, triggering negative thoughts that crash over you like a wave. You may feel hopeless and that there’s no way out. I want to convey that you CAN get out of the self-criticism cycle and live a more satisfying life. Check out the four steps in this blog post, and you’ll be on your way!
Step #1: Become aware of your core negative BELIEFS.
This step comes from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Self-criticism often originates from fundamental negative beliefs about yourself. To identify core negative beliefs, write down the deep, dark thoughts you have about yourself. Some of these thoughts might be, “I’m a failure,” “I’m unworthy of love,” or “I am all alone.” It is a difficult exercise. I recommend that you do it with a therapist so you can process the emotions that can come up with it. In CBT, these core beliefs (or schemas) drive the thoughts that get you on the self-criticism merry-go-round. Pinpointing these beliefs can be very helpful so you can start changing or restructuring them. In addition to therapy, one classic book to help with changing our core beliefs is Feeling Good by David Burns.
Step #2: Acknowledge your self-critical thought PATTERNS.
So, you’ve identified your negative beliefs. Now let’s see what kind of thought patterns you fall into when you’re in that self-criticism cycle. In CBT, negative thoughts are cognitive distortions, which are categories of thinking that can trigger depression, anxiety, etc. Identifying cognitive distortions lets you step off the merry-go-round and recognize that you’re falling to a thinking style that is unhelpful. Using worksheets or read Burns’ Feeling Good book can aid this endeavor.
Another tip is to pinpoint triggers of these thought patterns. Is it an interaction with a loved one? With a work colleague? Does it occur when you are learning a new skill? Or when you are reviewing your day? Or, does it happen when you’re thinking ahead to the future? Whatever it is, becoming more aware of triggers, as well as your patterns, can help you look more analytically at your thinking instead of getting caught up in the emotions these thoughts trigger.
Step #3: Practice MINDFULNESS.
When we are on the self-criticism merry-go-round (or the hamster wheel—whatever metaphor works!), we often feel stuck. At those times, we can feel compelled to think MORE about it to try to stop the self-criticism. The more we think about it, and the harder we try to get off of the merry-go-round, the faster we go. The very thing that we are doing—overthinking—is the very thing that gives energy to the self-criticism cycle and speeds it up. The most effective strategy at this point is to slow down the wheel by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. The goal is to slow everything down in your body so that you can calm your mind.
One way to calm your mind is through mindfulness. The first step of practicing mindfulness is to focus on your breath. Why don’t you try it right now? Take a few deep breaths. In and out. When other thoughts come into your mind, just gently return to your breath.
What is happening when you slow down and focus on your breath? Well, you are activating the relaxation response, which stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system by slowing your heart rate and your breathing. Your entire system calms down. If you want to take it further, try some grounding techniques, or even do some meditation. There are some great free meditation apps, like “Calm,” or “Stop, Breathe, and Think,” that can be helpful.
Step #4: Engage in SELF-COMPASSION Mindful self-compassion is the antidote to self-criticism. According to Dr. Chris Germer, it “combines the skills of mindfulness and self-compassion to enhance our capacity for emotional wellbeing.” As Dr. Kristen Neff stated, it’s giving “ourselves the same kindness and care we'd give to a good friend.” One way to practice self-compassion is to identify and validate your emotions. Writing down what you are feeling might be helpful. I like to use the “Rise Up” phone app from Recovery Warriors. You can rank the intensity of your emotions on a 1-5 scale. So, you may feel a little sad, so you’d rank sadness a “1,” and you may be feeling really embarrassed, so you’d be a “4” or “5.”
Using the “Rise Up” app helps raise my level of emotional awareness, PLUS it generates self-compassion. I can now think, “no wonder I feel so drained, I’m feeling seven different emotions right now!” After identifying your emotions, the next step is to show yourself care and compassion. Dr. Neff describes her own experience with it in her Ted talk. You can even wrap your arms around yourself and say, “I’m so sorry that you’re feeling sad. It’s really hard.” (You know I’m big on giving yourself hugs—it’s cheesy, but it really works!). Asking others for compassion (or hugs!) in this moment can also really help.
I know that self-criticism can be so hard to deal with day after day. These four tips of identifying negative beliefs, acknowledging your negative thought patterns, practicing mindfulness, and engaging in self-compassion, will help you on your way to stomping out self-criticism. You are unique and amazing, and you are worth the effort!
Hey everyone, I really appreciate you reading my blog! Have a wonderful day. :)
If you are struggling to find eating disorder treatment in San Diego, give me a call for your free 15-minute phone consultation at (858) 699-3754, and I will help you get where you need to be!