By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
One of the most common themes I have noticed with my clients over the years is self-criticism. Regardless of the presenting issue — be it depression, anxiety, addiction, relationship conflicts, you name it — so many people are unkind to themselves, in thought and in actions.
I work with people all the time who have developed a habit of beating themselves up. They habitually call themselves names like loser, fat, ugly, weak or stupid. If they were to speak to others like they do themselves, they would likely get fired or lose friends. They would certainly unfriend someone on Facebook who was calling them names day after day.
In addition to speaking to themselves unkindly, some people routinely treat themselves unkindly by eating when they are not hungry, not eating when they are hungry, eating what they think they should eat instead of what they truly want, drinking caffeine when they are tired and need to rest, saying “yes” to someone when they really want to say “no,” or stuffing their true feelings and thoughts because they are afraid to speak honestly.
We human beings tend to be creatures of habit. The more we do something, the more we tend to do it. Some habits are not a problem. In fact, certain daily rituals can be an important part of self-care or part of what brings enjoyment into our lives. As long as nobody gets hurt, some habits can be wonderful. But many people get into the unhealthy habit of being unkind to themselves. The good news is that learning to turn unkind thoughts and actions into kind ones is not only healing but it can be habit forming. The kinder you are to yourself, the more natural it becomes.
So if you have been struggling with self-criticism and self-care, here are some tips for you. But beware: they can be habit forming!
• Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
I’m not sure self-love was what Ice Cube had in mind when he rapped the words, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” but I do think awareness of how we are treating ourselves is the only way to break or make a habit. It is so easy to stay busy in our task-oriented, plugged-in, highly-medicated world and forget to check-in with ourselves and question our habitual thoughts and behaviors.
• Upgrade Your Thoughts
Our thoughts have the power to elevate or deteriorate our sense of well-being. If we are thinking unkind thoughts about ourselves, we are going to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or addicted. We simply will not thrive. However, if we can delete those old internal recordings and upgrade them to kinder ones, our lives will be transformed — even if the circumstances around us do not change.
So check-in with yourself throughout each day, and ask: Is this a kind thought — or am I engaged in “stinking thinking” (as the 12-step program refers to it)? Am I thinking kindly toward myself, my emotions, my body, and other people? Or am I being unkind toward myself, my feelings, my body, and others? If we checked our self-talk as often as many of us check our emails, texts, and Facebook, we would be well on our way to a more peaceful existence!
• Upgrade Your Actions
In addition to checking in on our thoughts, we need to keep a check on our actions in order to experience better health. We live in a no pain, no gain culture that encourages us to skip meals or eat foods we may not even like; to load up on caffeine rather than rest; to say yes even when our intuition says no.
So see if you can begin to increase your awareness around the actions you are taking each day. Do your actions reflect kindness toward yourself? If not, how can you upgrade them to kinder behaviors? One client who was saying yes when she really felt no, gathered up her courage and told the organization she had overextended herself to that she would no longer be able to hold the position she had signed on for. Another client who was turning to excess sweets at the end of a long work day created a sweet ritual when she got home that involved stretching, journaling, and a cup of tea — all things that left her feeling refreshed, as opposed to the sweets that felt good going down but left her feeling horrible.
Changing old habits is not easy but neither is living with self-defeating ones. With awareness, willingness and practice, you can learn how to speak kindly to yourself and treat yourself sweetly. And before you know it, you will have picked up a healthy new habit!