“Stop hating yourself for everything you aren’t. Start loving yourself for everything that you are.” ~Unknown
They stop you dead in your tracks.
Like tiny knives, they slash at your happiness.
In public, you feign confidence. You can easily squish down your critical thoughts. You push yourself to smile, laugh, and even be the life of the party.
But when the dust settles, and you are all alone, the thoughts start, first as a trickle: “I shouldn’t have said that. Why couldn’t I say smarter things?” And then they start to crash harder and stronger with, “I am so stupid. I can’t believe at this age I’m not more confident.”
Do you sometimes feel like you’re drowning in a sea of similar critical thoughts?
I know how embarrassing and terrible that feels.
When I teach yoga, I try to help people—to open their bodies, notice their thoughts, and release their limitations. Yet, at times I drown in self-criticism and feel like a fraud.
Sure, you see my serene face, but a storm of critical thoughts often brews behind my smile. I feel like an imposter because I’m not as serene as I appear.
Recently, something completely changed my perspective: scientists discovered that the more people try to avoid certain thoughts, the stronger these thoughts become.
College students were told to think of everything except white bears, and guess what they couldn’t stop thinking of? It’s called ironic rebound. When you try to push thoughts out, they come back even stronger.
This idea infuses most mindfulness practices. It’s different from telling yourself, “Think positive.” Because if you stamp down the critical thoughts, they only come back stronger. I tested this theory in my contemplative practices.
When I relinquished rigid control of my inner experiences, I learned to slow down the critical thoughts.
Where I once felt frustration for my negativity, I now accept my thoughts, challenge faulty beliefs, and make peace with myself. And the more I feel the critical thoughts, the more I can release them. I’ve noticed that the thoughts come less frequently when I don’t try to suppress them.
You and I both probably accept that criticism, especially toward ourselves, is destructive. So we try to suppress self-criticism. But when we try to avoid a thought, it’s never far away.
By suppressing, we empower our faulty beliefs. By looking deeply and challenging the belief behind the thought, we finally get relief.
Ready to find out how?
1. Observe your thoughts with curiosity.
Imagine yourself sitting on a riverbank, watching your thoughts flow by with the stream. Sometimes fast and rushing, other times calm and gentle.
Resist the urge to push critical or negative thoughts away; learn to welcome and observe all thoughts. This might feel unnatural or even painful at first. I understand. But remember that this is a process that will lead you toward a place of self-understanding and love.
When thoughts resurface repeatedly, we subconsciously assume they’re true. Scientists call this a hard-wired cognitive bias in the human brain.
When l catch myself thinking, “You are too quiet and shy and not animated or interesting,” I resist my urge to deny and suppress; instead, I observe and allow the thought into my body.
2. Identify the underlying belief.
Now you can dig a little deeper. What belief lies behind your thoughts?
If you’ve spent a lifetime trying to push critical thoughts away, you may have unconsciously turned them into self-limiting beliefs. I’d often think, “I’m too shy. Why couldn’t I have said more? Do people think I’m stupid?”
I believed that because I was shy, I was inferior and somehow deeply flawed. When I used my breath to be in my body, I felt empowered to be in the present. I allowed myself to feel the pain of feeling inferior.
You’ve observed the thought, so now can you identify the belief that causes the thought? Beliefs are about how you are as a person as opposed to transient thoughts about your actions.
If this is scary, use your breath to come back to your body and the present moment. Know that you are okay.
3. Feel the belief in your body.
Can you identify where the belief is planted in your body? Accept that you cannot control your mind’s content—but you are learning to change your reactions. And take back your power. When you physically identify sensations the belief triggers, you return to the present moment. And you take the power away from the self-criticism.
You can heal because you’re no longer a victim of your thoughts or deeply rooted beliefs.
Because feeling is not the same as believing.
What happens to your breath when you allow the belief to come into your body? Where do you feel it? Maybe in your heart or your belly button?
When I allowed a belief into my body, a deep pull manifested around my solar plexus, just under my rib cage. It was definitely painful but less scary. And through feeling and clearly looking at the belief, I became empowered to challenge it.
4. Challenge and dissolve the belief.
Now that you’ve observed your thoughts and pinpointed the belief, can you challenge it? Negative beliefs about ourselves are simply not true, and they cause the flow of critical thoughts.
You and I need to release them so we can find inner peace. As scary as it feels, verbalize the belief. Because you must face the untruths head-on to let them go.
Ask yourself a few questions to unearth the belief. How else could you interpret this belief? Can you see any evidence that this belief is true? What would support that this belief isn’t true? Remember that other people’s words are not necessarily truths—especially judgments and criticisms.
Now it’s time to let the belief go. Inhale deeply, and feel your lungs fill with air. Exhale completely, and feel your body relaxing. Imagine the critical belief dissolving like a cloud.
With each breath, you’re releasing your clouds of criticism. Feel the beliefs slowly leaving your body as your exhale and relax. Remind yourself that this belief isn’t true, and you’re letting it go. Continue to breathe until your belief and the pain goes away.
I challenged the belief behind the thought: “Because you’re shy and not always talkative (thought), you’re inferior and flawed (belief).”
I compared myself to other charming and talkative people, and I believed that I had to be just like them. I realized that I had family, friends, and students who loved and appreciated that I was authentic.
When I used my breath, the knot at my ribs dissolved a little bit with each breath, and so did my belief that I was flawed. I’m empowered to release that belief. And I’m left with profound clarity: the clouds have disappeared.
5. Uncover your new truth.
When you clear away your clouds of self-criticism and faulty beliefs, a sunny truth can shine. You’ll learn to appreciate your unique strengths and attributes.
What surfaces now that you’ve let go of the mistaken beliefs? Perhaps once you felt deeply inadequate, but now you realize you are humble and eager to learn. Don’t be afraid of letting your positive traits out into the world. You won’t become an egomaniac by simply accepting yourself.
I now see that my shyness has benefits: I’m an intuitive listener, compassionate yoga teacher, and empathetic nutritionist. As I continue to breathe, I feel better about who I am. And I accept my unique way of being.
You can do this too.
Become Your Most Powerful Ally
Over time, you’ll get more comfortable allowing those scary criticisms to surface. Like vampires that fear the sun, when you bring them out into the light, you take away their power. And they’ll slowly dissolve.
You’ll feel happier because you aren’t hiding your most valuable traits behind critical thoughts.
And rather than being a prisoner of your negative beliefs, you’re using them to fuel your transformation.
Let your inner light glow. Brighten the world.
Because only light can drive away darkness.
And you’re ready to start now.
Sad woman with reflection image via Shutterstock