Are You Too Hard On Yourself? Read This
I used to have a habit of correcting people's grammar. Friends, boyfriends, strangers — if their verb and adverb didn't agree, they'd hear about it! This was likely very irritating for most people who spoke with me, although I'm sure somewhere during a job interview an ex-boyfriend is thanking me ...
But my criticism didn't stop at "wells" and "goods." I experienced my being and my world through uber-judgmental glasses. I could find a flaw faster than I could find my left hand.
I thought the Mona Lisa, and, well, the rest of Europe, were really underwhelming. I thought I was disgusting every time I looked in a mirror. I had unrealistically high expectations for everyone and everything. Always judging made me miserable to be around, and, well, miserable.
I was miserable because judgment is at the root of all our pain: Judging ourselves causes depression; judging others puts a wedge between our relationships; judging our experiences or future experiences causes frustration and disappointment. Judging our feelings causes shame.
Often, what's at the root of our pain is self-criticism. We judge ourselves, we judge others. We judge experiences. We judge feelings. In response, we feel disappointment, frustration, discouragement, anger, and anxiety. In fact, studies have shown self-criticism is linked to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, among other ailments.
Although I've significantly changed my relationships to the world and myself over the past few years, I'm human and of course still catch myself judging. Like when I check out my boyfriend's selfie-filled Instagram feed of super-babes. Or I catch my reflection in a window when I'm in a particularly self-loathing frame of mind. Or I lose my debit card for the 4th time in a month.
Those are times when I notice that critical, judgmental voice. Of course, then I judge myself for judging (Megan, you hypocrite! You're supposed to be compassionate and nonjudgmental!)
But then I become aware of judging myself for judging, and empathize with my experience. After all, judgement is deeply imbedded into us. We are taught from a young age to develop strong critical thinking skills. To be rational. Independent. Self-sufficient. to analyze and criticize. Thus, trying to detach from judgment can be very challenging.
I of course still catch myself judging, but here are six steps I've found have liberated me from the shackles of perpetual (self) criticism:
1. Notice yourself judging.
The first step to change is awareness, so focus on that for now. This can be challenging for those of us with high expectations for ourselves, as we tend to want to see results immediately.
However, like many of our unserving thoughts, judgment can become so automatic we don't even notice we're doing it — like breathing. So, your first task in becoming less (self) critical is to notice when you're judging.
2. Be curious. You can't be judgmental and curious at the same time.
Try to perceive your world with a beginner's mind, an open mind. Replace criticism with wonder; replace judgement with curiosity. Here are a few examples:
- Be curious about your emotions. For example, you could ask yourself: What is this sensation that I'm feeling? What is it trying to tell me? Can't figure out? Don't judge yourself for not being able to interpret it. Get curious about that! Have I felt this before? I wonder how long it might stick around? I wonder what the adaptive quality of this emotion might be.
- Be curious about people's stories and behaviors. Some ideas to consider: What she been through? Has he had his heart broken? What are they feeling right now? What possessed her to make that rude comment?
- Be curious about your thoughts. Some ideas: How is thinking that I'm ugly/fat/foolish benefitting me? Where do these ideas come from? or I wonder why I'm judging that person for posting a selfie right now. Am I jealous? Threatened? Triggered in some way?
- Be curious about your experiences, especially if you find yourself comparing them to others. For example, I wonder what this performance will bring? rather than This Cirque De Soleil better be as good as the last one!
- Be curious about the future. Some fun ways to go about this: I wonder where I'll be in 5 years. There are so many different directions life could go! That's a gentler route than telling yourself things like, In 5 years I will be married with 2 children and a stable career, or else I will consider myself a failure.
3. Soften your language.
Language is emotionally evocative. Consider how you feel when you say, "the trip was horrible" or "the weather is shitty."
Now think about how you feel when you say "the trip had its challenges" or "it's been raining for 32 days."
Think of how you feel when you say, "I ate [or drank/slept/flirted] way too much — that's so bad!"
Compare that to telling yourself this: "The amount I [or drank/slept/flirted] did not serve me."
One is going to make you feel shame, while another is going to give you a bit more space to step back and review your experience with compassion and with less distress.
You get the point. Try to use neutral language, rather than words and descriptors that bring about strong feelings. Softening your language can help you detach from judgment.
Try to reduce your usage of words like bad, good, right, wrong, fat, skinny, ugly, pretty, stupid, smart.
Instead, use words like helpful, unhelpful, serving, unserving, comfortable, uncomfortable, interesting, unexpected, challenging, etc.
Play with your vocabulary a bit and see what connotations different words bring up for you. If they leave you feeling ashamed, angry, worthless, or disappointed, try to find different words to describe your experience.
4. Cultivate empathy.
When we step into the suffering of ourselves or others, we have a harder time being judgmental. Continuing to use your curiosity, try to understand what the person you're judging might be feeling and experiencing.
If you're working on becoming less self-critical, try to practice empathy toward yourself for having the thoughts and feelings you're having, and/or for engaging in whatever "bad" behavior you're judging yourself for. As with being curious, it's very hard to be critical and empathetic at the same time.
5. Practice, practice, practice.
You know how when you're meditating, and you notice your mind has inevitably wandered, you're taught to congratulate yourself for noticing and bring your attention back to your breath? Same goes for when you notice yourself inevitably judging.
Instead of beating yourself up, label it "judging" and try to approach the situation with tolerance and compassion. You're creating new neural pathways, and improvement won't happen overnight.
6. Find (or influence) your people.
Consider who might be a toxic or negative influence in your life. Who in your world might be contributing to a culture of judgment? There's a difference between talking about another with respect, concern, or wonder, and callously trash-talking. There's a difference between compassionately expressing you'd like to lose a couple pounds and verbally abusing yourself for existing.
If you notice you're in the habit of bashing, whether the object of this negativity is another or yourself, try to steer the conversation in a less critical direction. Or spend more time with people who live (fairly) nonjudgmentally and compassionately. Oh, and stop reading tabloids and Perez Hilton-esque sites! They both normalize and perpetuate criticism and judgment.
Try it for a few days. See what happens. For me, shame, anxiety, and disappointment don't come around as often. And for my friends, neither does the Grammar Police.
Megan Bruneau, M.A., is a therapist, executive coach, and wellness writer based in New York City. She received her bachelor of arts in psychology and family studies from the University of British Columbia and a masters of arts in counselling psychology from Simon Fraser University. She is a registered clinical counselor (RCC) in British Columbia, but now works with clients in New York and globally via remote work. Drawing inspiration from her own experiences, Bruneau has contributed to The Huffington Post, Forbes, and Thrillist and has appears on Good Morning America and New York 1 Morning News. She is also the host of the podcast Better Because of It.