How self-criticism is harming you

man plugging his ears with fingers

“You are really ugly” … “You really should not be taking selfies, no camera is made for that face” … “Gosh, look at those teeth, rather keep your mouth shut” … “Why is your hair so curly?” … “You are just a burden to everyone around you” … “No one really wants to hang out with you” … “You are going to end up alone” … “Have you considered suicide before? Perhaps you should.”

Would you ever even think of saying any of the above statements to a stranger?! I bet not! Yet, so many of us, end up saying these things to ourselves! The self-critical statements above are ones that I’ve heard too often in my therapy room. According to a recent study, we have around 6,200 thoughts per day! This means that if you hold on to these negative, self-critical, and degrading statements, you are likely to repeat them to yourself a few thousand times per day! 

Now, let that just sink in for a bit…

But apart from the fact that you may be repeating these negative statements to yourself throughout your day, probably the two biggest caveats of negative self-criticisms are that they 1) cause increased anxiety and stress by triggering your body’s natural stress-response, and 2) can become habitual and automated and, in turn, change the neurochemistry of your brain. 

Let me explain by starting with: 

Caveat #1: Activation of your stress-response

In his book, The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life’s Challenges, Paul Gilbert (2009) provides the grounding science behind our natural, evolutionary stress-response to self-criticism. Below I will provide you with a summarised version of this evolutionary system and how it relates to our self-criticism.

Based on his own research, Gilbert (2001) found that self-criticism has a distinct physiological pathway that triggers the body’s natural stress response or what is also known as our “fight or flight” response. This threat system is the oldest part of our mammalian brain that warns us and prepares us to either “fight” or “flee” the anticipated danger.  When the threat system gets triggered, the brain releases the steroid hormone cortisol (i.e., stress hormone) which then activates the body’s sympathetic nervous system. The latter is the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations and causes adjustments to our physiology in preparation to face the anticipated danger such as increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, dilating our pupils, increasing our body temperature, and increasing sweat production and decreasing digestion processes. 

Evolutionarily, this threat system is extremely efficient and adaptive, in fact, it’s the only thing that will save you if you were chased by a lion! So, in essence, our threat system is designed to protect us, by preparing us as best as it can when faced with a threat. Also, once the threat has dissipated, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and basically undoes the work of sympathetic nervous system after a stressful situation.

However, in today’s modern times, the chances of us facing a life-threatening situation, where we need to escape a predator, is extremely rare (well, unless your work entails hunting tigers, facing sharks, or catching snakes). Nevertheless, what is happening is that our threat system is still being activated, but by our thoughts alone! When we engage in self-criticism we not only active our threat system, but we do so continuously, preventing our parasympathetic nervous system from kicking in. Consequently, we keep ourselves (consciously or subconsciously) in this high stress-alert state. 

In addition to placing the body in a high-stress state, research on neuroplasticity has also shown that self-criticism rewires your brain’s neurocircuitry, making these negative statements about yourself more “sticky”, habitual, and ultimately, automated. 

Caveat #2: Rewiring your brain’s neurocircuitry 

In her book, Switch on your brain, Dr Caroline Leaf writes extensively about the neural wiring of your brain and how it can significantly impact your health and happiness. She also highlights that the words you say to yourself will not only shape who you are, but also every single experience you have. When you engage in harsh self-criticism, you are creating pathways in your brain and the more you repeat these self-criticisms, the stronger (i.e., more densely connected) these pathways become. We also know that the brain favours more densely connected pathways whilst it tends to prune away or eliminate unused pathways. 

It is evident from the above that our thoughts truly do determine the quality of our lives. As stated by English philosopher, James Allen, 

“As a man thinks, so he is. As he continues to think, so he remains.”

So, now you may wonder, but how do I break free from this natural negative bias I have as a human? The answer, as with most worth-while things in life, is that it involves some effort. Ok, maybe a bit more than just “some” effort but eventually it’ll be effortless. Just as you can wire your brain with strong negative neural pathways, you can also wire your brain with strong positive neural pathways. But, in order for these positive neural pathways to exist and become stronger, and ultimately automated, you will need to create them first. Think of it as creating a walking trial in an untouched forest or mountainous landscape.  The first attempt at carving out that pathway is going to take some time and effort, but once the initial path is laid out, it becomes easier to “smoothen out” the path to make it more accessible and easy to navigate through. The same applies to your neural pathways. The more you repeat running thoughts on a particular pathway, the stronger the neural networking around that pathway will become. 

So, how to get started.

Step 1: Mindful Awareness 

The very first step in creating a new positive neural pathway, is to become mindfully aware. You cannot try to modify your harsh self-criticisms if you are not even aware of them. An effective way of “catching” the negative self-evaluations or statements you make about yourself is to tune in to your thoughts when you are feeling stressed, anxious, sad or overwhelmed. Take a deep breath and stop what you are doing. Become aware of your thoughts in that moment. For example, if you sense yourself feeling unmotivated and down following negative feedback. Stop in that moment and listen to what you are saying to yourself. Perhaps you are saying “You just really messed that up” or “You should not have even tried, you knew you’d fail”. Or when you are standing in front of the mirror and you catch yourself criticising your appearance. STOP, and listen to what you are saying to yourself.   

Step 2: Positive Pursual

Now, there are two strategies that I generally use with patients within a therapeutic setting which have proved to be highly effective. I will discuss the one method, which I call “positive pursual”, and the other method I’ll discuss in an entirely separate blog post,  as it comprises several components. Also, this way, you get to start with the easier method first and get to implement it straight away! 

The method of “positive pursual” entails exactly as the name implies, you seek out positivity throughout your day, whether this is through bringing up positive memories, or writing down things you are grateful for, or ensuring you start your day with a positive quotation. The motivation behind this method is to initiate a process of laying down those positive neural networks that you ultimately want to create. I’ve listed some positive pursual techniques below which you can start implementing today. However, the trick with positive pursuals is that you need to practice these DAILY! You cannot practice positive techniques on some days and forget about it on other days. You ultimately want these pursuals to become habitual and automated. With that said, here are 4 effective techniques:

  • Positive things about the day that you’ve noticed so far: Place a reminder around your workspace, or even alongside your bathroom mirror, to remind you to name 3x positive things that you can think of, of your day so far. For example, that you had a nice warm shower, that you could kiss your children goodbye before school, that you enjoyed a nice coffee in your favourite cup. 

  • A grateful aspect of your day: before you go to bed each night, bring to mind thing you are really grateful for. The important part here is that you need to FEEL the gratitude. It cannot just be something you say in your head and then turn around to go to sleep. You need to FEEL that sense of gratitude fill you from the inside. 

  • Daily positive quotes:  try and read at least one positive quote each day. There are actually several websites where you can subscribe to their newsletter and receive daily positive quotes right in your inbox. 

  • A positivity reminder: pick an object (anything) that makes you smile and triggers positive feelings within you. This can be literally anything that makes YOU smile! For example,  a bunch of flowers, a smiley toy, a beautiful piece of art, your child’s favourite toy, or even that old keyring that has positive memories (no, no one is judging). Put this positivity reminder somewhere where you know you will see it every day. Then, during the course of your day, whenever you spot this object, remind yourself of why it makes you smile.

These may seem trivial, basic, and “fluff-like” techniques, but they really do work! So, do not judge them until you’ve tried them out, and I mean PROPERLY tried them out on a DAILY basis. Also, if you have any positivity “hacks” that you use, why not share them by leaving a comment below so that others can benefit from these too!

Then, last but not least, I want to end this post with a powerful YouTube video that will hopefully make you reconsider how you speak to yourself. I promise you, it will be WORTH THE WATCH!


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