“I don't know a perfect person. I only know flawed people who are still worth loving.” ~John Green
Do you ever wonder if that voice in your head is right?
Do you re-live events, scouring through every detail to look for places where you went wrong in your actions?
Do you ever walk away from a conversation with your inner voice ranting that you should have done better—that you should have said this or that instead?
That self-critical voice became a prominent friend of mine. I called it the gremlin. The gremlin leapt onto my shoulder after every conversation with a friend or acquaintance. Whispering in my ear in a snarky voice, repeating every sentence and telling me what I should’ve said instead.
The gremlin and I would have dinner together after a shopping trip and review how much I’d spent, critiquing what I should have left at the store. We would then scrutinize the meal I’d just eaten and have a dash of dessert, since I had already gone overboard. This would inevitably be followed by a vicious verbal attack on my body.
The worst part was that the gremlin played on my insecurities, exposed my weaknesses, and actually made me more critical of others (in an attempt to silence my criticism of myself).
I realized how detrimental a friend the gremlin was when I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. During a group therapy exercise, I could not write down two people who I thought would have something good to say about me. I just sat there with tears from my ugly-cry falling in my lap. It robbed me of any joy in relationship with others and myself.
It was a devastating eye-opener.
Allowing the gremlin to run the show had eroded my self-love and ruined my self-esteem.
Self-criticism had dirtied my mind into thinking that nothing would ever go my way. I had nothing left inside that seemed admirable. All that I had experienced and achieved up until that point had no meaning for me.
I eventually managed to break it off with my self-critical voice and built unconditional self-love. But it took consistent practice in searching for my own valuable qualities.
These are some of the methods that worked for me:
1. Confront your own gremlin.
Confrontation is difficult, especially if it’s a part of yourself that you’re confronting.
But if you want to rid yourself of your gremlin, you have to do it.
One of the first things I did was consciously examine every thought. I listened to the tone of my internal dialogue. I found that it was not a loving or supportive voice.
It was hard to recognize at first, but with practice I heard the distinct voice of my gremlin. I began to question its validity. Were its criticisms actually true? Was it taking things out of context?
I questioned the beliefs about myself that the gremlin had been whispering to me all those years. I realized I had taken many things out of context and my inner criticisms were extreme and punitive.
Would it surprise you if I told you it is actually very satisfying to call out your gremlin and put it on sabbatical? It is a relief to confront the unending criticism and listen for a more supportive voice. When you stop taking its criticisms to heart, you’ll finally open yourself to self-love.
2. Choose gentle observation.
This world is a competitive place and it’s easy to fall into the trap of scrutinizing your abilities. You have a lot invested and want to control the outcome of your experiences. This can create high expectations and disappointment when things do not run smoothly.
At one of my past employers if I made a mistake at work I would end up falling into the pattern of berating myself all day long. This accumulated until I no longer felt I did a good job, lowering my self-esteem.
Now I choose to gently observe my productivity and monitor my progress. If I make a mistake I correct it to the best of my ability and move on.
It is through repeated acknowledgement that your self-love is able to blossom. Create a habit of recognizing a kinder vision of yourself—one that is more humane.
3. Forgive yourself and then forgive yourself again.
We all make mistakes, but even tragic ones do not warrant withholding self-love. Self-forgiveness is an art that needs to be practiced and reinforced, especially when you’ve got a harsh internal self-critic.
My gremlin has berated me through the years about not being a dedicated parent due to my time spent on self-care. To prevent myself from slipping back into depression and anxiety, self-care has become my lifeline and a way to maintain good health. Occasionally I have to put it before my family so I may attend groups or self improvement classes.
My family feels the impact of it and when they protest, my self-critic whispers until I feel guilty.
So I forgive myself for the time I’ve spent away. I forgive myself for forgetting something important that they told me because I was preoccupied with keeping my mind quiet. I forgive myself for putting myself at the top of my priority list.
Forgiveness is a skill to be honed and perfected. The main benefit is freedom from the scorn of your inner critic. So forgive yourself daily.
Every night before you go to sleep, make some time in your bedtime ritual to forgive yourself for something, even if it's just a small mistake or done out of necessity. Tell yourself it’s okay, that these things happen, and see if there is a way to improve the situation.
4. Expand your view.
Sometimes you only see what is in focus. But when you focus on something too closely, you miss all the beautiful scenery. A Monet painting looks like mere splotches if you scrutinize it closely. But when you look at it from a distance, its beauty is breathtaking.
In the past, whenever a friend hadn’t returned a call or were late for a night out, my gremlin would tell me they didn’t like me anymore. It would tell me it’s me and I was sliding down the popularity scale.
But this was never the case. Whenever I expanded the view, I realized my friends had their own lives keeping them busy and they missed me as much as I missed them. When we would finally get together we had a great time and I would experience all the love that was available to me.
Your inner critic will always focus on the negative possibilities and make everything your fault. But when you expand your view, you’ll see the world is a very intricate, complicated piece of art meant to be appreciated as a whole.
5. Let go of judgment.
Life unfolds and conversations evolve in the moment. It is when we look back with the benefit of hindsight that we judge ourselves for what was said and done. This habit is difficult to break.
Recently I had a conversation with my daughter. It really could have gone better, we ended up yelling, screaming, and crying. I let my emotions control my responses.
My gremlin started in and I immediately shut it down. I could have easily let it rage on with the judgments. I recognized that I could’ve done a better job of pausing and controlling my emotions.
When you recognize those moments in which you're judging yourself, show yourself compassion. You didn't know how that moment would develop. You were just doing the best you could.
It's okay to think about what went wrong, but only in the spirit of improving yourself so that you don't make the same mistakes.
6. Choose something different.
The inner critic often falls into certain thought patterns, and recognizing these patterns can help you develop different ones. A common phrase your inner critic may use, for example, are the words, “You always . . .”
My self-critic would tell me “You always, interrupt people when they are talking.”
It was true. I felt an inner excitement to share my experience when someone was talking with me and I would interrupt them. I started to purposefully pause and became a deep listener. It has given me a deeper connection to the people I encounter.
Listen for your inner critic’s distinct phrases; it’s a key time to evaluate the situation and try a different approach or reaction. This is probably one of the only times your inner critic is being helpful.
When you choose a different way to act or react, you hone your skills and gain confidence in making choices that are beneficial to yourself and others.
7. Remove the shackles.
Sometimes being chained to your self-critic becomes comfortable and keeps you in familiar surroundings. The voice tells you to stay put or you risk failure.
What part of you is afraid to try something new? The freedom to explore new opportunities can uncover talents you possess, build upon your strengths, and may even lead to a new career or hobby.
I benched my inner critic and started playing ice hockey at forty-three years old despite the fact I couldn’t skate at first. I gained new friends, improved my health, and learned some teamwork skills.
The next time you recognize that your self-critic is keeping you safe, sign up for that class you’ve been eyeing or do something epic. Call that crazy friend of yours who is always going skydiving, and give it a try. You may just find an activity you become passionate about.
8. Recognize yourself in others.
We can often see others’ strengths more clearly and forgive their mistakes more easily than our own. But the qualities you see in other people are in you as well. It’s called the mirror effect.
If you practice thinking kindly of and speaking kindly to others, it’s easier to recognize your common strengths.
For example, pick two people now. What strengths do you admire in them? What do you normally compliment them on? Make a list of those strengths. Where do you see them in yourself as well?
Optimize how you can rely on those strengths to help build more self-love.
9. Unwrap your imperfection like a gift.
Your gremlin has been sharing your imperfections with you for years. Acknowledge how those traits can work for you in your life.
I have always been obsessive to the point that it has prevented me from finishing projects and kept me up all hours of the night. Simple projects that someone else would complete as “good enough” would become epic projects exacting perfection for me.
My gremlin would tell me if I didn’t do something the right way I shouldn’t bother doing it at all.
But while this obsessiveness can be a curse, it can also be a blessing. You’ll never find me delivering sloppy work.
For instance, when I was a teenager, I had pleasantly surprised my parents when they had me sand the peeling bathroom ceiling and it came out as smooth as silk.
And as an adult I ran a large craft fair. I’d obsess over every detail for months, but this resulted in every fair going off without a hitch for the five years I helped.
No matter what perceived flaws you have, you are an extraordinary human being. When have these flaws actually been helpful, and when have they hindered you? Choose to work on two flaws that would vastly improve your life, and accept the others as unique personality traits.
Live free from Self-Criticism and Embrace Self-Love
Since I’ve been challenging my inner critic I no longer waste time putting myself down. Instead, I have developed a deep appreciation for my personal strengths and feel more confident. My depression is gone and my anxiety has subsided. My mind doesn’t race after every conversation and I feel a sense of peace most days.
You too can experience this kind of freedom.
It takes a simple awareness that will develop easily if you pick one or two of these methods and start to use them mindfully. Your skills at recognizing your self-critic will slowly build until you are not listening to it at all.
Give yourself permission to let that cantankerous voice go and replace it with a supportive, empowering recognition of your strengths.
Radiate so much love for yourself that the gremlin will be stunned into silence.