Whenever I start a new workout regimen, I can’t seem to stick with it. I always find myself returning to old habits just a few weeks later. Every time this happens, I feel like a failure who can’t accomplish anything. Sometimes I get so fed up and angry that I give up on all my healthy habits.
Sound familiar? Feelings like this are common, thanks to what’s known as an “inner critic.”
Why we self-criticize
We criticize ourselves for two main reasons. First, our brains evolved to solve problems, which helps explain why we fixate on them. And second, we’ve all been raised or influenced by others to believe certain things about ourselves or treat ourselves in certain ways.
Parents, older siblings, teachers, peers, bullies, and society in general all impact how we learn to think about ourselves. Even if we were raised by loving and supportive people, it’s still very common to feel like we’re lacking something or that we’re not good enough.
As a result, we find ourselves unconsciously refusing to accept and embrace certain parts of who we are. We think we need to change to become better, and most of us do this the only way we know how—by criticizing and punishing ourselves.
Silencing your inner critic through self-compassion
Thoughts are powerful. They have the capacity to shape our behavior, which is why moving toward a more self-compassionate frame of mind is the key to overcoming self-criticism.
Being self-critical doesn’t work to bring you closer to who you want to become. If you’re too focused on finding fault or even rejecting yourself, it’s hard to find space for growth.
The term “self-compassion” was coined fairly recently, although the concept has been practiced by Buddhists for much longer.1 In a nutshell, it means treating yourself the way you’d treat a close friend or family member. Think of it as a way of relating to yourself through kindness, mindfulness, and a sense of common humanity.
When you’re self-compassionate, you’re not giving up or being weak—you’re simply acknowledging and accepting your flaws alongside your strengths. Research has shown that self-compassion is associated with lowering stress and depressive symptoms.2 It may also indirectly help improve physical health by empowering people to adopt healthy lifestyle habits and behaviors.3
It’s easier to grow and transform as a person when you’re willing to accept your whole self, and self-compassion is a powerful tool that can help you get there.
How to practice self-compassion
Becoming more compassionate with yourself is easier said than done, especially when it comes to negative thoughts. Here’s how to get started.
Forgive and accept yourself
The key to accepting yourself lies in understanding that your past mistakes and failures don’t define you. What really matters is that you’re here now—and able to move forward.
If accepting yourself as you are now feels difficult:
Take some time alone to sit with yourself and feel your emotions.
Name those emotions.
Identify your strengths, your values, and what you’ve learned from past mistakes.
Talk yourself through what you would have done differently if you’d known then what you know now.
Optionally, write yourself a letter about how you feel. After reading it out loud to yourself, destroy the letter (safely, of course).
Notice negative self-talk
It can be hard to put a stop to negative self-talk if you’ve been doing it for years without realizing. The first step is to become mindful of when it happens.
Heighten your level of awareness. Take note of when your internal voice turns critical. Does it happen in certain situations? At certain times of the day? When you’re with certain people? The simple act of noticing these thoughts, examining them, and realizing that they’re only thoughts, not facts, can be enough to spark a shift.
Identify patterns. Many of our thoughts repeat on a daily loop. Try to notice negative statements you might make to yourself regularly, like “I can’t do this” or “I’m such a loser.”
Tune into how you feel. Are you angry, sad, or frustrated when you hear your inner critic? Turning your awareness to your emotions and observing them for what they are can help stop negative self-talk in its tracks.
Have constructive conversations with yourself
Your inner critic isn’t the only voice you have. It only seems that way because you’ve been listening to it for so long that it’s overpowered everything else.
You can learn to shift your inner critic to a much more understanding, supportive, and positive voice by identifying and engaging with it. The goal is to challenge what your inner critic tells you.
You can do this by:
Talking back to negative thoughts by questioning their validity
Asking yourself questions about your value as a person
Using positive affirmations to reinforce the direction you want to go in your life
Gratitude is a simple practice you can do anytime and anywhere to shift your inner voice away from negative self-talk. Even if all you do is appreciate yourself for waking up on time or remembering to put your car keys in your bag, it makes a difference. When practiced regularly, gratitude has been scientifically proven to make us happier.
Always be kind to yourself
Your inner critic was created by you, for you, by gathering all the negative thoughts and doubts that have held you back in life. In some respects, it’s trying to be protective and keep you from getting hurt again, but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you on its own.
Talking back to your inner critic can you help you show yourself some understanding. Ultimately this is about changing the way you think, not about trying to shut off your thoughts or lower your level of intuition.
Ask for support if you need it
If you find it difficult to handle your own negative self-talk and it continues to affect your everyday life, you may benefit from working with a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for instance, is a very popular and effective type of therapy that involves identifying negative thoughts and challenging them.