How To Reduce Shame And Self-Criticism

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Overcoming shame is a step we have to take when our internal voice regularly gives us negative messages. It is time to take your power back!

A woman in silhouette sitting on a chair with her head in her hands

Overcoming Shame

We are our worst critics. For many people, even before we make a mistake, our harsh inner critic is ready to bring us down with negative self-talk. It is what we have come to know and the life we live daily to the point that we don’t even know we are doing it. 

This habit may have started years ago, and it often stems from experiences of shame. Whether you were embarrassed in front of others in the classroom, experienced emotional abuse, physical abuse, or sexual abuse, or dealt with other difficult circumstances, chances are that your inner voice took on some messages that you wouldn’t otherwise have. 

Many don’t realize what a powerful tool one’s internal dialogue can be in realizing our goals and achieving our dreams if only wielded the right way. What we think is what we do and who we are. So, if our self-talk is positive, we are motivated to do our best.

However, if our inner critic is abusing us with negative self-talk, we can never get away from it. We talk to ourselves far more than anyone else ever talks to us, so not addressing our shame and self-criticism can be detrimental to our well-being. If left unchecked, it can lead to social withdrawal, psychological problems, and a heightened fight or flight response. 

There are ways to address this inner voice, though. You have the power within you to break this cycle, and with these changes will come the strength you’ve been looking for.  

Identify Your Cognitive Distortions

Usually, when we have self-criticizing thoughts about something, the base of that argument is surprisingly illogical. We aren’t aware of it because our internal conversations are so one-sided (you’re the only one having them), so it becomes easier and easier to be too harsh with ourselves for the smallest of reasons. 

For example, you go to a job interview, and it doesn’t go well. Your inner dialogue could go something like this, “I’m a moron who can’t talk to people. I’ll never get a job. I always mess things up.” 

Does that sound familiar at all? Now read these statements out loud. Are you truly a moron? What kind of education have you had – either through school or through life? Are you truly unable to talk to people? You are most likely successful at communicating during most of the interactions you have, maybe just not this one. One out of thousands this week. 

We perpetuate our own negative emotions by providing a negative self-evaluation any time specific events don’t go the way we were hoping. Do you honestly always mess things up? Always? This is just one instance when you are being irrationally hard on yourself.

This happens because of cognitive distortions that we have developed over our lives. Whether a family member modeled this behavior while you were growing up, you’ve had traumatic experiences that perpetuated feelings of shame, or whatever the root cause, you are the only one who can stop the painful loop of negative self-talk. But before we can stop these negative thought patterns, we have to stop and see that we’re having them. 

The first step towards conquering toxic shame is to identify that while your powerful negative emotions may have been brought on by somebody else originally, what you do with them in the present moment is entirely in your control. And while calling yourself a moron may not have anything to do with the different types of shame you’ve experienced, this is you continuing the vicious cycle. 

Bring Yourself Back To Reality

The next time you are face to face with one of your cognitive distortions, see it for what it is and take it down a notch. The best way to do this is to ask yourself questions about the painful feeling you have and the sense of shame you are now putting on yourself. 

For example, you’ve been dating someone for a year and they just broke up with you. For some people, the emotional responses will include things like, “It’s all my fault. I am not worthy of love and no one is ever going to love me again.”

Now that you’ve identified what you say to yourself – and it is important that you really try to hear it – write it down. Get it out of your body, and then face it. 

Is this situation all your fault? Did the other party have nothing to do with the many, many reasons you broke up? Were they as mature as they should have been? Did they have a secure job, tons of patience, a sense of humor about life, and always said please and thank you?

Really look at what you brought to the table and what they brought to the table. At the end of the day, it was 100% not all your fault.  

Are the feelings of guilt that you have about the relationship warranted? Maybe. Have that discussion with yourself. What can you do better next time so that you can build on this painful feeling and make some positive change? Because you will love again and someone will love you.  

Understand that there is a big difference between mourning a loss (the breakup, a future expectation you had, a lost job, a lost loved one) or having self-conscious emotions and having a negative self-perception because your irrational beliefs are getting in the way.

Shame-prone individuals tend to place the blame entirely on themselves and have self-critical thoughts about how their future will be affected by a single incident. It’s time to create a new normal.   

Learn Your Physical Symptoms

As much as you may learn to manage uncomfortable emotions, very often a traumatic experience or one that has left you with an intensely painful feeling of shame will result in symptoms that you can detect within your body. 

When you begin to have shameful feelings (long after the event has occurred), pay attention to the physical sensations in your body. How is your breathing? Do you clench your teeth? How tight are your muscles? Do you feel lightheaded or tingly? 

Shame triggers a lot of people, not just you. But part of controlling it is learning how to calm your nervous system to get past that uncomfortable feeling. Everyone may experience different symptoms, but the calming mechanisms can be the same. 

As a human being, calming the body is often about breathing and making a concerted effort to relax. There is meditation and yoga, but you can also take advantage of deep breathing. Slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth ten times is one of the easiest ways to elicit calm. 

Distract Yourself

When you make a mistake, your brain tends to beat you up over it again and again in a toxic loop. You can’t seem to get over the mistake – and somehow it gets added to the weight of past mistakes – so the cycle of self-criticism goes on and on.

This leads to an increased feeling of shame and exacerbated mental health issues which lead to feeling unmotivated and heavily depressed. 

Do not let yourself get to that point. This is a cycle, so if you try to keep some conscious awareness when you see yourself spinning, you can do something about it.

When you have made a mistake, begin to experience shame, and your inner critic won’t stop talking, distract yourself. Get busy with an activity that will engross you and distract you from the negative self-talk going on in your head.

Get up, go for a walk, hang out with a good friend, or find some support groups that might help. Focus on your physical health by going to the gym or going for a run. There are lots of different ways to engage your mind, so don’t sit around and allow your mind to verbally abuse you. Make a different choice. 

Don’t Use Self-Criticism To Motivate Yourself

A common mistake that many people make is to use self-criticism as a way to motivate themselves. They think, the harder they are on themselves; the less likely they will repeat the mistake.

This is not true. Criticism and fear are weak motivators and will only have a long-term negative impact on your psyche.

There was a time when social norms encouraged parents to spank their children. It instilled fear into the child and – some would argue – made the child trust less. Many became more secretive because they didn’t want to get a spanking. They didn’t change their behavior, they only feared the punishment. 

People who succeed in life succeed despite their self-criticism and past shame, not because of it. Being self-compassionate and gentle to yourself after mistakes allows you to actually get motivated to do better in the future.

Criticizing oneself is usually a learned behavior. You didn’t come out of the womb hurling criticisms, you heard them. Try to figure out where this might have started.

Did you have a dysfunctional family, as so many of us do? Did you have an overbearing teacher or religious leader who used to let you have it? What if that person was talking to you now, would you be comfortable with them saying the same things? Don’t let them continue to influence you in the way you’ve allowed all of these years. 

If you are someone who has used self-criticism as a motivator for a long time, it’s time to let it go. Instead, it’s time to bring in some rewards and unconditional love as motivation.

For example, if you always used your self-criticism as a motivator to finish your job assignment or gym set, try rewarding yourself with something you enjoy (coffee, television, take-out dinner, etc.) every time you successfully deliver the work on time.

If you miss the deadline, consider the external factors as well as what you could have done differently and make different choices to try to achieve the goal next time. 

Practice Mindfulness

You may have heard all about mindfulness as well as the benefits of mindfulness meditation in the media, but that’s because it actually works. 

Mindfulness is the practice of being completely aware of your thoughts and emotions in the exact moments that they are taking place. It involves disengaging from any negative thoughts and keeping your focus on the task at hand instead of intrusive thoughts and feelings.

With a little mindfulness practice, you can avoid getting bogged down in cycles of self-criticism and worrying about the feelings of others. You will develop a stronger selective focus and hopefully enjoy your own experience in the moment. 

Following some basic mindfulness techniques won’t change the structure of your day, but it will help you to approach life in a new way. It will increase your emotional intelligence and help to break up the constant internal conversation at a very basic level. 

Write Down Your Positive Personal Qualities

Our inner critic is like a bully, constantly tearing us down and reminding us that we are deserving of our negative feelings and low self-esteem.

The good news is that you don’t have to give in to that bully anymore. It is time to stand up against it.

One of the best defense mechanisms we can use towards our negative talk is positivity. You are an exceptional human and it is time to remind yourself. You have virtues, talents, intelligence, and much more going for you. Let that bully know. 

Sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and write down ten of your favorite things about yourself. What do you love about yourself? If you can’t get to that place, what do you like about yourself? What have others praised about you in the past? This can be anything from awards you were proud of to how well you make scrambled eggs. Nothing is too little. 

Every day, read that list. Try to add a new item each day. Let this list begin to be something that you are as familiar with as the words to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Allow it to live in you the way that your bully has for so long. The more your list and your bully get to know each other, the more positive emotions you should begin to experience and the more the experience of shame should fade. 

Create A Self-Gratitude Journal

You may have heard of a gratitude journal, but have you heard of a self-gratitude journal? A gratitude journal is a place where you write down what you are grateful for each day. It is meant to help focus your mind in a positive direction. 

A self-gratitude journal is just like a gratitude journal, but with a twist. This would be similar in that you would still be journaling about positivity, but you would be writing down the things you took pride in having to do with yourself.

Write about the tiniest details, like saying thank you to a coworker, as well as the larger accomplishments of the day. There is always something to be proud of (Did you get out of bed and take a shower? Depending on your state of mind, that’s a huge accomplishment.), so start keeping a record. 

Congratulating yourself on your accomplishments by maintaining a self-gratitude journal is not narcissism, self-centrism, or bragging. It is a mental health tool designed to help you be compassionate towards yourself and see yourself in a new light.

You congratulate others on their achievements, no matter how big or small, so why not do the same for yourself? It is okay to be proud of yourself for getting high marks on a test. It is healthy to take pride in the positive choices you made today.

There are so many temptations and unhealthy influences in the world that just doing the right thing is something to be proud of. If you used good judgment, write it down so that you have a record.  

Maintaining a self-gratitude journal can help immensely in looking to overcome shame and fighting that harsh inner critic. Focusing on the positives in your life instead of the negatives is never a bad thing.

Be A Friend To Yourself

For some reason, many of us treat our friends and family better than we treat ourselves. It is time to treat yourself as you would treat your friend, your best friend. Be kind and compassionate to yourself, and understand that mistakes are inevitable. It’s how fast you bounce back from those mistakes that matters in the end.

If you have been struggling with shame and self-criticism, make a conscious effort to forgive yourself; no matter how hard it is. What would you tell a friend who is dealing with the stressors that you manage? 

For many people who have lived with the experience of shame, mental health plays a part. Substance use disorders and anxiety disorders may come into play because the last thing you want to think about is how much shame and criticism you carry around inside of you. 

Seeing a mental health professional can be the key to beginning a new journey towards health. Be the friend that you have always needed and admit to yourself what help you need. Turn to your support network to help you make a plan, and know that there are better days ahead. 

Watch For Changes Around You

Sometimes what we need more than anything else is validation. And one of the good things that we see happening in this world is the changing of cultural norms. 

People are developing new ways of seeing things. When a bad person commits a bad act, the outside public has more understanding than ever before. The culture of victim blaming is changing and other positive changes are on the horizon. 

The unhealthy shame and feelings of anxiety in relation to abuse have a light shining on them. Be patient and continue to live an authentic life. The public support group for survivors is growing, so stand in your own feelings and remind yourself that you are not alone. 

No path to healing is perfect, but if you are willing to take the first step, you will find yourself encouraged to keep moving on to the next step. The more you make different choices and change up your inner narrative, the easier everything will become. 

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