How to Transform Self-Criticism into Self-Appreciation

Sad Woman Reflection

“Stop hating yourself for everything you aren’t. Start loving yourself for everything that you are.” ~Unknown

They stop you dead in your tracks.

Critical thoughts.

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.

Shall we?

Sad woman with reflection image via Shutterstock

About Jessica Blanchard

Jessica Blanchard, registered dietitian and Ayurvedic practitioner, helps busy people re-energize with super simple food, yoga and wellness strategies that work. Grab your free 7-Day Plan and learn to eat, move and live better in 10 minutes a day.

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  • Angela Baucom

    Hi Jessica! I really enjoyed your article. Have you studied Byron Katie’s work? This whole process really reminded me of The Work.

  • HI Angela, I’m glad that you enjoyed it. No, I haven’t studied Byron Kaite’s work. But now you’ve piqued my curiosity, I’ll check it out. This post comes from a combination of reading about willpower (The Willpower Instinct, by Stacy Gengel) and putting the theories to practice with yoga techniques.

  • Sri Purna Widari

    Hi Jessica,

    This is my current issue.
    I sometimes laughed at myself when I challenged my nasty inner critics.
    I felt like a crazy person, talking to the voices in my head.
    Like for instance. I am now 31 years old and not married. I was bothered by some opinions by others who questioned whether or not I am being selective and high maintenance or that I am an undesired spinster.
    There were times when they were very mean and I just said, “Really? Am I that bad?
    So far, what I did has been about being aware that I have been hard and judgmental towards myself.
    I have not really practiced the breathing and I would like to start it.
    It is rather challenging to to fully accept that my self worth is not define by the harsh critics my parents and other people have said to me in the past.
    Another example:
    My mother once yelled at me and demanded me to wear a lipstick before going out because I looked ugly with my dark natural lips.
    It hurts that I felt insecure and hardly felt confident without make up and especially around the local people compared to when I was around foreigners.
    And when some of them told me I was beautiful, I had this nagging suspicion that they lied and just wanted to please me.
    I allowed what my mother told me to be my belief.
    Thank you for the knowledge and lessons you have shared.
    I really appreciate it.

  • Solid stuff, Jessica.

    I really like the part about challenging the negative or limiting belief. Most of us run on autopilot (letting our unconscious fears guide the ship) – so we walk around with a generalized anxiety, wondering why we don’t make the kind of progress we want.

    But, once we shine a bright light on our fears and negative self talk, we can see them for what they are…..a big steaming pile of B.S.

    They immediate hold less power over us, b/c we’ve stopped hiding from them. With the lights turned on, so to speak, we see that the monster under the bed was never real, but all in our heads.

    Thanks for the post!

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  • Martha_Brettschneider

    Wonderful post, Jessica. Over the years, I too have learned to identify where emotions manifest in my body. The combination of realizing that not all of the thoughts in my head are to be trusted (my true self is not producing most of the stupid chatter), and turning a spotlight on the physical impact of specific emotions, has greatly reduced my suffering. Darkness can’t survive in the face of bright light, which is why I agree with you that pushing negative thoughts away is counterproductive. Wish I could add yoga to my presence/conscious awareness practice, but a full hour of it makes me motion sick!! (Sad, but true.) Keep up the good work!!

  • Martha_Brettschneider

    Couldn’t agree more, Mike! Turn on the spotlight and dissolve the steaming pile of B.S.!! Kind of like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

  • Mark Tong

    Hi Jessica – great post. I definitely believe in becoming your own most powerful ally, but it’s easier said than done. Your post certainly helps.

  • Lovely article Jessica, I really appreciate this step by step process, you’ve broken it down into some very practical steps, thank you!

  • Ann Davis

    Great post-Jessica, I agree with #2, as an introvert that came in handy.

  • HI Ann,
    Glad you enjoyed the post. It’s easy to mistake being shy as somehow being inverior. And being an introvert has its advantages….

  • Hi Martha,
    I’m glad that you enjoyed the post. Discriminating between the thoughts & emotions that come from our true self from the more negative aspects of ourselves is hard, but worth it.

    I’ve heard from a handful of other people that doing yoga makes them motion sick. I wonder if you avoid looking up it would help? But there are many other practices that are uplifting and beneficial.

    Best wishes!

  • Thanks Mike! Yes, it’s easy to believe our own BS. And sooo hard to distinguish between the chatter and the true. But it’s a process, and learning is part of the fun. The analogy of turning on the lights is a good one. The negative and critical thoughts scatter like cockroaches.

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  • Hi Jessica – it’s back to the old what we resist persists syndrome. I appreciate your take – it adds a lot to the conversation.

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  • andreastill

    Hi Jessica,

    As regards to underlying belief patterns – I find they are the hardest to identify. You often don’t even realize you indeed have faulty beliefs, you’re so caught up with them!

    I’ve only recently recognized this – in the last 2-3 years – and it took some time and courage to start looking at them from a more objective stand point.

    One of my big limiting beliefs has been (still is!) “I’m shy, therefore I can’t…” I’ve found a myriad of ingenious ways to fill the blank in that sentence.

    But of course I didn’t know I was doing it, until actually someone pointed this out to me!

    Thanks for your insights as always 🙂

  • Paula Ronen

    As I began to love myself I found that anguish and emotional suffering are only warning signs that I was living against my own truth. Today, I know, this is AUTHENTICITY.

    As I began to love myself I understood how much it can offend somebody as I try to force my desires on this person, even though I knew the time was not right and the person was not ready for it, and even though this person was me. Today I call it RESPECT.

    As I began to love myself I stopped craving for a different life, and I could see that everything that surrounded me was inviting me to grow. Today I call it MATURITY.

    As I began to love myself I understood that at any circumstance, I am in the right place at the right time, and everything happens at the exactly right moment, so I could be calm. Today I call it SELF-CONFIDENCE.

    As I began to love myself I quit steeling my own time, and I stopped designing huge projects for the future. Today, I only do what brings me joy and happiness, things I love to do and that make my heart cheer, and I do them in my own way and in my own rhythm. Today I call it SIMPLICITY.

    As I began to love myself I freed myself of anything that is no good for my health – food, people, things, situations, and everything the drew me down and away from myself. At first I called this attitude a healthy egoism.Today I know it is LOVE OF ONESELF.

    As I began to love myself I quit trying to always be right, and ever since I was wrong less of the time. Today I discovered that is MODESTY.

    As I began to love myself I refused to go on living in the past and worry about the future. Now, I only live for the moment, where EVERYTHING is happening. Today I live each day, day by day, and I call it FULFILLMENT.

    As I began to love myself I recognized that my mind can disturb me and it can make me sick. But As I connected it to my heart, my mind became a valuable ally. Today I call this connection WISDOM OF THE HEART.

    We no longer need to fear arguments, confrontations or any kind of problems with ourselves or others. Even stars collide, and out of their crashing new worlds are born. Today I know THAT IS LIFE!

  • Jessica, your article is so soothing. These song lyrics came to me as I read: