Being critical of ourselves can sometimes be perceived as a helpful tool for improvement. Some people may act like harsh coaches, thinking they can motivate their team by telling them, “you’re lazy” or “you’re no good.” In other words, a harsh coach may think they are bringing out the best version of their athlete by degrading them. Self-critical talk can be mistaken as helpful, despite the inner voice often being relentless and hurtful.
This tendency to evaluate ourselves in a scrutinizing manner can be detrimental to our mental well-being. Our inner critics punish us over every mistake, eventually creating a slew of programmed, automatic thoughts. This may have been learned from our caregivers and peers and even adaptive at one point. Regardless of the origins of our self-criticism, we could fall into the trap of believing that being critical of ourselves may give us a chance at redemption, undoing whatever has been done. We may want to activate this harsh coach in our heads to prevent us from being something we do not want to be, failing, or not meeting others’ expectations of us. It is necessary to acknowledge that even though, at one point, self-criticism was a helpful strategy, it no longer serves us. The harsh coach now affects our relationships with ourselves and with others.
Some common critical inner dialogues that one can find themselves having:
I am a failure.
Why did I do that?!
You are not smart/funny/good enough
I can never do anything right.
Good news! It takes the same amount of effort to be critical as it does to practice self-compassion. By rewriting these scripts in our minds with kindness, we can begin to replace them with kinder dialogue:
All humans make mistakes.
I am human and can sometimes do things I wish I hadn’t.
I am enough, I am right where I am supposed to be, and I am doing the best that I can.
I am still learning and making mistakes is part of the process.
Here are some ways to build up that kind, compassionate inner coach:
Evaluate the critic: Think about what the critic says and where it is leading you. Is it pushing you towards something and urging you to thrive? Is it keeping you away from something like failure or rejection? Look at the intention and recognize when it shows up to play. Evaluate if it is a helpful or unhelpful helper.
Take a step back: Pretend for a moment that the inner-critic voice is a radio playing softly in the background of your mind. Distance yourself from the harsh coach, and maybe try to give the coach a name. Recognize when the coach does show up, say to yourself, “that’s just Coach Steve getting louder again.” Try writing the critical thoughts down when the coach shows up, and practice distancing yourself after. Simply removing yourself from the psychological distress the critical coach is stirring up can be valuable.
Find the compassionate coach within you: Imagine the kind, compassionate friend. What do they look like? What would they say to you? In what tone? What does their breath look like? Is it slow and calm? What about their body language? Is it free of stiffness with a relaxed posture? Practice visualizing the embodiment of your coach and slipping into this role with ease. Offer yourself encouraging words in the morning, feeding yourself a mantra that will activate your inner courage and commitment to yourself. It might sound something like, “I am worthy of good things. I know who I am, and I am enough”.
Remember, you are human and you are dynamic. As such, we recognize that change is inevitable. Keep moving forward, and don't forget to be kind to yourself along the way.