A little self-criticism is a good thing: It can be a reality check that spurs you to be a better person. But there is a vast difference between "I need to work out more," which sparks your motivation, and "I'm a jiggly blob."
Excessive self-criticism tends to backfire, because it leads us to focus on our so-called failures instead of the "small ways that we could have improved," says psychologist Tamar E. Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety. And over the long term, studies show, self trash-talk is associated with higher stress levels and even depression.
Happily, there are many ways to muzzle that inner critic for good.
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Put negative stuff in a box
When we're beating ourselves up, a tiny blunder is inflated into an epic typhoon of failure. So the next time a negative thought intrudes, take a few deep breaths and then "quickly narrow it down and put your problems into the smallest box possible," Chansky says. "If you think you screwed up in a meeting, instead of saying, 'I'm an idiot; I ruined my career,' say, 'Man, I used a poor choice of words.' Visualizing that box can really help."
Seeing a tiny box in your mind shows the actual size of the problem and helps you feel more confident that you can take it on.
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Try the power of possible thinking
"We feel a lot of pressure to turn it all around and make it positive," Chansky says. "But research has found that when you're down and out and force yourself to say positive things to yourself, you end up feeling worse." That's because our internal lie detector goes off.
She suggests a technique called possible thinking, which involves reaching for neutral thoughts about the situation and naming the facts. "I'm a fat cow" becomes "I'd like to lose 10 pounds. I know how to do it." The facts give you a lot more choices and directions you can go in.
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Ask yourself if you're really so guilty
Let's say in a meeting you blurt out that your Spanx are too tight. You think, I've just made the biggest fool of myself. Challenge your version of the story: Did everyone really recoil in horror, or were most of them actually tapping on their BlackBerrys under the table?
"Make the choice to be kind to yourself by questioning your initial thoughts, which is key to slowing down that voice," says Amy Johnson, PhD, a psychologist and life coach. The more follow-ups you ask yourself, the more you dilute the shameful moment.
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Put a better spin on things
A simple semantic tweak can actually change your outlook, Chansky says. Instead of telling yourself, "I'm so disorganized, I'll never get anything done," train yourself to say, "I'm having a thought that I'm not going to get it done."
It may sound silly, but this little change of wording gives you distance and reminds you that your low self-esteem moment is just that: a moment. "I always tell people that saying, 'Boy, did I feel stupid,' rather than 'I am so stupid' may seem like a nuance, but there's a significant difference," Young adds, because the former describes how you feel, not who you are.
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Ask: what would my best friend say?
A quick way to puncture nasty self-talk is to think of someone you trust and imagine what she would say to you. "Which is probably, 'Oh please, was it really that bad?'" notes Chansky. "Did you really ruin your career in the meeting?"
Another rule: If you wouldn't say it to your friend, don't say it to yourself. You would never—at least, we hope you would never—call your friend a "total slob" for dribbling tomato sauce on her blouse.
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Give your inner critic a name
Preferably a silly one! It's hard to take that inner voice seriously when you call it The Nag. ("Here comes The Nag again.") Brené Brown, PhD, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and author of The Gifts Of Imperfection, calls hers The Gremlin.
Chansky prefers The Perfectionist. "Naming it something goofy adds a bit of levity, " she says, "which helps break through the emotional hold that anxiety has on you. Over time, this short circuits the whole anxious cycle."
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Give your rants a name, too
Johnson likes to call these inner harangues stories. "I love calling some tirade the 'my friends are better than me' story, or the 'I don't get enough done' story," she says. "Instead of feeling like it's some kind of valid feedback, this highlights how consistent the stories are. We have pretty much the same thoughts today that we had yesterday, which should clue us in to the fact that they're habits, not necessarily truths."
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Pick up the phone
Shame only works if we keep it secret, Brown says. "So if I get in the car after a party and thought I said something stupid, I pick up the phone and say, 'OK, I'm in a total shame downward spiral—here's what happened.'" She laughs. "At that moment, you've basically cut shame off at the knees. So find the courage to do the counterintuitive thing and tell someone what happened—invariably those conversations end with laughter."
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Embrace your imperfections
It's enormously freeing (not to mention a huge stress reducer) to stop holding yourself to insanely high standards. "Perfectionism is so destructive," Brown says. "I've interviewed CEOs and award-winning athletes, and not once in twelve years did I ever hear someone say, 'I achieved everything I have because I am a perfectionist.' Never!" What she hears instead? They credit their success to a willingness to mess up and move on.
So relax your standards just a little. If you give yourself the same empathy you'd show a friend, it will be so much easier to take on The Nag, and win.