Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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SELF ESTEEM III: Fighting the Internal Critic

SELF ESTEEM III: Fighting the Internal Critic

Last month's column discussed techniques to bolster self-esteem by recognizing and reinforcing realistic strengths and achievements in your life. Some of you will have accomplished this task successfully and will feel better about yourself and your world. Others will have struggled with the task and found themselves wanting. Let's not allow the Internal Critic to win this important battle. This column will further discuss techniques to counteract negative self judgments which wound our self-esteem.

Realize that self-criticism is destructive, rarely constructive. Of course some rational analysis of self can be helpful to understand and anticipate criticism as long as it stays out of the self-concept. A habit of internal criticism, however, will penetrate to your very essence, and you will think and feel like a failure in important life areas. Sometimes the critical self judgments will be so pervasive that you can feel like a total failure. Help is available! You do not need to continue these anxious, depressed, hopeless ways of thinking. Cognitive behavioral techniques such as those outlined in these articles can provide dramatic relief. I can think of many of my clients who dragged themselves into my office feeling at the end of their rope and emerged feeling at the top of their game. The improvement is not instantaneous and does require work, but the rest of your life can be improved if you are suffering from the wicked words of a harsh Internal Critic.

You want to start by being kind to yourself. If you have a strong Internal Critic, this means that you never learned to be kind and take care of yourself. But the world is a much nicer and happier place if you can feel good about yourself. In the first article of this series I described the "best friend" technique. The essence of this approach is that you are a best friend to yourself! You can look in the mirror and think, for example, "I look fat; I'm a slob; I have a pimple on my nose" leaving you feeling inadequate and unattractive. Or you can notice that "My hair looks good this way; my eyes sparkle when I laugh" leaving you feeling better about yourself. While the picture in the mirror remains the same, your positive and caring thoughts about yourself make a difference in terms of your mood and self-esteem.

A systematic approach to counter the ravages of the Internal Critic will be to restructure your self-concept in a more realistic and positive manner. The approach is to write self descriptive statements in important life areas such as appearance, personality and life skills. If you have a strong Internal Critic, you will notice a preponderance of negative descriptors when you make the list. Those descriptions should be rewritten to make them nonjudgmental, specific and accurate, and countered by corresponding strengths. Take "scatterbrained" for example. Instead of this judgmental term, you can write that you become distracted in boring situations but that you focus well and produce high-quality work in demanding situations requiring creativity. If you have a strong Internal Critic you will need assistance in writing rebuttal judgments because the critic will keep censoring you when you try to think more positively about yourself.

I have seen people's lives change dramatically after working through the approach outlined above. At times some additional work can be needed to completely eradicate the negative effects of the Internal Critic. Sometimes perjurative self-judgments are reinforced by an inflexible moral code which judges you inadequate or a failure if you violate or fail to live up to these standards. We all have outdated values and rules for living which we learned as a child and which may not have adapted to our adult life. Rigid standards of what is "good" and "bad" will most likely be used to judge ourselves harshly because it is difficult to be "good" all the time. Take inventory of these values and decide which ones are realistic, flexible and life affirming, then adopt these as your own and leave the self-critical moral judgments behind you. A hint: whenever you use the word "should," whenever feel that you "have to" do something, whenever you feel excessive guilt, you may be judging yourself in this inflexible manner. As soon as you bring these value judgments to light you can examine them in a rational manner and challenge those which damage your self esteem. Instead of thinking "I should" do something, substitute the words "I choose to" perform that action. This will emphasize that you are an adult in charge of making decisions about your own life.

The way we handle guilt and mistakes is often related to the Internal Critic. Some people feel that guilt is a helpful emotion because it leads to more responsible future behavior. As a matter of fact, in most cases guilt simply leads people into feeling bad, worried and depressed, possibly avoiding the issue or even self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. The best remedy is to examine a guilty feeling to see if it relates to a mistake. If there is a mistake, it can be rectified: once. Guilt can go on forever, while a mistake can be corrected. After you have made restitution for a mistake you will feel better and will not need to remain stuck in nonproductive guilt.

In some cases we also find underlying anxieties and fears causing difficulty when we attempt to activate our new and improved self-concept and self-esteem. There may be, for example, a childhood-based fear of being embarrassed or rejected by others causing inhibited behavior which then reinforces the Internal Critic's messages of personal failure. Specialized techniques are available to desensitize these anxieties and also help you learn and practice assertive behaviors.

Again my message is that problems can be solved! This column and self-help books can get you started and/or an experienced cognitive-behavioral therapist can make a real difference in the rest of your life. A helpful reference is McKay and Fanning, Self-Esteem, Third Edition, New Harbinger, 2000.