Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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SELF ESTEEM I: Have You Met Your Internal Critic?

SELF ESTEEM: Have You Met Your Internal Critic?

You know your external critics (other people) and you don't like them. I don't like criticism either! Even "constructive" criticism often falls short of causing positive change. The first response to criticism is defensive, perhaps even angry and rebellious, but the longer-term response is often a wounding of self-esteem and sometimes also anxiety or depression.

This article provides an overview of some of the destructive factors that threaten self-esteem. Self-esteem is built upon positive but accurate and realistic observations and judgments about the self. Positive life circumstances and achievements do set the stage for -- -- but do not guarantee -- -- a positive self-concept. Psychologists have found the key to self-esteem in the way you think about yourself.

You may not be aware that your most potent critic is internal, silently damaging your self-esteem, often reinforcing worry, lowering moods and causing depression. No, you don't have a little dictator running around in your mind, but you do have a continuing internal commentary called thinking. Too often the process of thinking contains a negative pattern of thoughts which bring you down without a battle, often without you even realizing it. Most people assume their thinking is a mirror of reality. We believe that thinking is a factual commentary about things we observe. To analyze this belief, bring your thinking from the background to the foreground and pay attention to the content of your thinking. You should record some of your thoughts to check for the percentage of negative, critical and worrisome thoughts. If you have more positive than negative thoughts, congratulations! But don't rejoice if none of your thoughts are negative. Some negative thoughts do serve a purpose such as directing you to focus on life issues to be overcome. If your thoughts are full of guilt and self-criticism, read on. Help is available.

Where does negative self talk come from? Parents, teachers and other authority figures criticize children as a way of socializing them and teaching appropriate behavior. Obviously the child needs to learn right from wrong. Too often, however, the child learns more: shame, guilt and perjurative self-judgments. Positive reinforcement is given less frequently to the child, and optimism and positive thinking are rarely taught.

To start to understand your Internal Critic, you will need to write down samples of your thoughts for accurate analysis. Identify and label negative thoughts as a function of your Internal Critic. The basic reason for this label is to separate and isolate destructive negative thinking (the Internal Critic) from the rest of your thoughts. When you identify the Internal Critic as "not me", you will be more able to dispute self-criticism and develop an accurate and life-affirming self-concept. If, on the other hand, you believe the criticism contained in your negative thinking, you will be more likely to see perjurative self-judgments as true. Many people do think that self-criticism is valuable. Indeed, some analytical and perceptive thinking serves a helpful purpose in orienting you to life problems and areas needing improvement. However, too many critical self-judgments result in negative and inaccurate self concepts which undermine self-esteem.

Other people think the Internal Critic serves useful functions such as self protection from criticism by others. Their thinking goes like this: if you criticize yourself first, you save yourself from embarrassing criticism from others. Perhaps this is true at times, but there are more targeted and affirming ways to develop appropriate behavior without the destructive effects of self-criticism.

Yes, the Internal Critic can be silenced. Specialized techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy are available to assist you in learning to disarm and refute the Internal Critic. Most people can begin by learning strategies to dispute internal criticism. Judgmental labels can be replaced by specific, accurate thoughts. (For example, you don't need to consider yourself lazy or a slob if the real issue is that you don't like to make your bed in the morning.)

One technique you can use to refute your Internal Critic is the "best friend" approach. Let's say your best friend came to you with self-criticism and guilt about a mistake. Would you join in the chorus of criticism? Would you, for example, tell your best friend, "Yes, indeed, you made a horrible mistake and you certainly should feel guilty and stay depressed for a long time." More likely you would reassure your best friend that everyone makes mistakes, that mistakes can be corrected, and that he or she should lighten up rather than remain burdened down by this problem. The basis of this technique is that you should be your own best friend and provide reassurance and a positive perspective to help yourself through difficult situations. The essence of the best friend approach is learning a compassionate response to self as well as others. Understanding, acceptance and forgiveness are available for all. Your life and the lives of others will be happier and your world will be a more tolerant and pleasant place.

This article is the first in a series on self-esteem and future articles will include additional information about ways to counter the Internal Critic. If you want to start to focus on your self-esteem now, you can pursue additional reading. Matthew McKay has written extensively about the Internal Critic. (Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning, Self-Esteem, Third Edition, New Harbinger Publications, 2000.) The book is an excellent reference and is most valuable when used to accompany work with a cognitive-behavioral therapist. I would describe the book as very dense, packed with ideas and concepts, not one of those easy reading self-help books. Additional articles about happiness and optimism on my website will also help counter the stress induced by a strong Internal Critic.