I used to be very critical of myself. Perfectionism has been a double-edged sword: a gift that has allowed me to excel at many things I’ve worked at, but also a hindrance, especially when it comes to the time I spend on various tasks, the kindness I haven’t always shared with myself, and the constant pressure on myself to be or do “all or nothing.”
One of the things that was most difficult for me to shift was my self-criticism. Throughout my early life and my 20s, if something wasn’t “perfect,” I could easily spiral into a torrent of self-blame. The mantra of if only . . . reverberated through my head daily. If only I’d been more careful. If only I’d phrased things differently. If only I’d triple checked that document.
The time I spent in law school didn’t relieve me of the perfectionism – if anything, it made it significantly worse, as I spent hours upon hours each day editing writing assignments, studying even minor aspects of case law, and planning activities for the groups I led. Without a lot of spiritual tools for release, I stewed in my self-deprecating thoughts, causing consistent stress, worry, and self-doubt.
This toxic self-criticism finally came up for clearing when I was in the midst of a divorce. Facing a failed marriage as well as the loss of several close friendships, my inner critic and ego had never been more active. The regular mantra of if only became even more destructive, and I was done. I decided that I was shifting my thoughts, one at a time, until I was no longer putting myself down.
I started by just paying attention to my thoughts each day. I noticed how many times I criticized myself, blamed myself, felt embarrassed or ashamed, felt anxious, etc. That in itself was an eye opener – it was a lot. I was doing these things multiple times per day, everyday. And I was mean to myself – there were few days on which I actually felt at peace.
In an effort to shift this, I pushed the thoughts away as they came up. This helped at first, but the relief was short-lived; because I hadn’t changed the pattern at its core, the feelings and thoughts kept popping up. Burying them or shoving them away was temporary maintenance, and it required a lot of daily effort. Plus, if I wasn’t really vigilant, they would creep back in.
Finally, I discovered the concept of retraining my brain so that the thoughts didn’t automatically come up. Instead of pushing things away, I would witness the thought, engage with it, and say in the end, “that’s not true because x, y, and z.”
If I had a thought of, “I’m so stupid; I should’ve known better,” I would reframe that to be, “I’m not stupid; I did the best I could with the information I had. If something like this comes up in the future, I would ask [these questions] to be more informed before making my decision.” Sometimes it felt like I was searching for reasons that weren’t critical in themselves. Eventually, though, the reframing became automatic.
Now, when a harmful thought occurs to me – which is far less frequently than in the past – I reframe it easily. Instead of sinking to the point where I feel ashamed or anxious, I shift the energy and put the focus on the action steps instead of the criticism. I also have the grace with myself to know that I’m always learning, growing, and changing – and that it’s not fair to expect myself to have it all figured out.
I’m still working on the perfectionism, but I’m grateful that I’ve learned how to effectively minimize my inner critic.
What has made the biggest difference for you in dealing with negative self-talk?