A Simple 5-Second Habit to Rewire Your Harshly Self-Critical Brain

“I acknowledge my own worth. My confidence is growing.” ~Unknown

Sometimes I feel like a spider whose web is repeatedly torn down. I plan something and start taking action. Then life happens, and setbacks threaten to sap my energy and enthusiasm.

Whenever I take on too much, I can feel as if I’m juggling a million balls. And doing it badly.

You’ve probably seen T-shirts saying, “Things are a bit crazy around here.” That could easily describe me when I allow myself to become overloaded.

It’s easy to feel stressed and to slip into harsh self-criticism. Especially when I hold myself to unrealistic perfectionism or get swept away by impatience. Or when I start comparing myself to others who seem to be in a better space.

But all’s not lost. I love to keep learning. That keeps me hopeful about finding solutions, no matter what the problem.

I keep identifying and adopting simple science-based actions that yield big payoffs for well-being. The simpler the practice, the more easily it fits into my busy life.

So, what can be done when life gets too stressful and setbacks lead to harsh self-criticism?

The Tug of War in Your Brain

Until relatively recently, scientists believed that the brain could not develop beyond a certain age. The adult brain could not change, it was thought, apart from gradually shrinking from your late twenties onward. So, if your brain habitually criticized and demotivated you, then that was how you’d remain.

That view is simply mistaken, as science has discovered. Your brain can develop, even during adulthood.

There’s hope for us all, provided we start respecting ourselves enough to practice self-care.

How would you like to start rewiring your harshly self-critical brain using a simple five-second habit? I’ll share a transformational habit I’ve adopted, but first let’s understand this a bit more. Once you understand why a practice works, it’s easier to make it part of your life.

Stress and negativity do remarkable things to your brain. When stress overwhelms you enough to keep your mood constantly low, your brain starts to gradually change. The core component of your brain, the grey matter, grows less dense in some helpful parts of your brain. But it grows denser in some self-critical parts.

It’s almost as if there’s a tug of war between these two parts. An overdose of stress weakens the helpful parts, allowing the self-critical parts to dominate.

That’s the bad news. Fortunately, there’s good news.

Your brain can keep developing, and the unhelpful changes can be reversed. You have “stem cells,” so named because they can develop into various types of new brain cells. Also, new connections can develop between the cells in your brain.

You can encourage such helpful developments by the actions and thoughts you embrace. In effect, you can assist your brain to keep developing in a helpful way.

Before I describe the simple but powerful five-second practice, there’s a story I want to share. It will help illustrate how the practice works.

My Story

I had once accumulated a lot of weight, was on statin treatment for high cholesterol levels, and couldn’t shed the excess weight despite regularly exercising. I attributed this to being over forty. I knew I was on a conveyor belt headed for a coronary bypass operation or heart attack and was keen to escape.

Then a noticeably trim classmate from my medical school visited us and ate surprisingly small portions of some things but surprisingly large portions of others. They too were over forty years old. What did they know that I didn’t?

Health and well-being are, to me, priceless treasures. People often destroy their well-being in desperate pursuit of material things. They can end up ill, sometimes forfeiting even the material things they craved.

I didn’t want to be yet another person sleepwalking toward a heart attack. I decided to investigate the secrets of staying trim despite middle age. I was strongly motivated, and in a helpful way.

There were many challenges. I needed to grapple with the scientific literature, to untangle the conflicting information about how to eat well.

My other big challenge was that I love delicious food, especially when eating in company. I was wary of solutions that took all the enjoyment out of food, or tended to isolate me from friends and family.

Eventually I found an approach that transformed my health for good, but the details are for another time. The point here is that I had many setbacks and failures along the way. Despite the setbacks, I succeeded in permanently reducing my waist circumference by several inches and no longer need the statin treatment.

There’s one practice that helped me, more than anything else, to recover after setbacks. It’s so stupidly simple that its power easily can be underestimated.

But it works, as long as it’s practiced consistently.

I call it REBS. You’ll discover why.

REBS Tames Your Harsh Inner Critic

When I was a young child, I was fascinated by orderly lines of ants. I spent ages observing them and perversely enjoyed drawing a stick or finger across the line. That would confuse the ants, and chaos would ensue.

However, in a little while, the line would form once again. The ants recovered and resumed doing what was important in their lives.

Let’s say you decide that something is important in your life and you plan how to act accordingly. Perhaps, like me, you’re keen on avoiding a heart attack and you decide to start eating better. Let’s say you’re armed with the relevant knowledge and know exactly what to do.

You start out enthusiastically, until a setback happens. Perhaps someone presents you with a box of your favorite chocolates.

Before you know it the chocolates are somehow all out of the box and inside you. Within half an hour! Many people might consider that a triumph, but let’s say that you consider it a setback.

This is a crucial moment. What do you do? Start criticizing yourself?

What if, instead, you treat this setback as a temporary blip? You focus on resuming your journey of eating well. When you sit down for your next nourishing meal, you accept your stumble but congratulate yourself for getting back on track.

Even when you don’t stumble and fall, you keep congratulating yourself for each small advance. Each nourishing meal, in this context, becomes a small triumph and an occasion for self-congratulation. Each half-hour without grazing on snacks becomes another small triumph and another occasion for self-congratulation.

Imagine rewarding yourself for every small advance, with a quick self-congratulatory phrase. Especially when you get back on track after a setback.

You can, in this way, create a steady stream of self-congratulation that is based on real advances. You don’t settle for empty words. Instead, you acknowledge and celebrate doing each small step, which carries you in your chosen direction.

When your mind is busy with this reality-based self-congratulation, there’s less room for harsh self-criticism, or brutal perfectionism, or comparing yourself to others. You start to transform your self-image and self-confidence.

I call this practice REBS, short for reality-based self-congratulation. It’s a rebellion against your harsh inner critic, who can otherwise be a demotivating tyrant. It helps the self-respecting part of you to prevail over the harshly self-critical part of you.

You start to unleash the self-repairing power of your brain, even as you transform your self-image.

Setbacks become an opportunity for you to recover and practice REBS. The more you do this, the harder it becomes for setbacks and stress to keep you down.

Which self-congratulatory phrase could you use? The simplest is probably “I’m doing this, I’m okay.” Your “it” can be the smallest meaningful step imaginable, such as sitting down for a healthy meal.

Keep this practice firmly based in reality, anchored to your small helpful steps. Then you’ll be able to do it meaningfully and with conviction. But do it at every opportunity, no matter how small your triumph.

In summary: Take a meaningful small step, then treat yourself to a quick dose of REBS (reality-based self-congratulation). Repeat, and keep going.

Suffered a setback? Pick yourself up, resume your journey with the next small step, and treat yourself to a quick dose of REBS.

Is This Relevant to Other Situations?

I used my experience with eating well as an example. But we could apply this to a wide variety of situations.

If you feel worn out from taking care of others and have forgotten how to take care of yourself, then your small step can be as simple as listing your own needs.

If you’re a recovering workaholic, then your small step can be as simple as taking a short walk, or meditating for a few minutes, or freeing up an evening for playful relaxation with your partner.

If you’re a sales manager who’s just lost a big deal, then your small step can be as simple as identifying the next good prospect.

If you’re a doctor or health care professional overwhelmed by the demands on your time, or complaints from patients, then your small step can be as simple as taking a short break to regain perspective and consider your options.

If you’re a business owner trying to cope with unhelpful staff or business partners, then your small step can be as simple as choosing the most important points you want to communicate to them.

If you’re scurrying around at work like a headless chicken, then your small step can be as simple as putting other tasks aside and focusing on just one important task in your long list.

If you’re confused about some decision, then your small step can be as simple as listing your options, in order to consider the pros and cons before choosing.

If you applied for a better job but didn’t get it, then your small step can be as simple as listing other opportunities.

If you have a disabling illness, then your small step can be very small indeed. It might be as simple as getting out of bed, or walking a few paces without a stick, or contacting a friend.

If you’ve had a bitter argument with your partner or child, then your small step can be as simple as reaching out with a gesture of reconciliation. And so on.

You decide what actions are good, helpful and important in your life at this time.

This practice can be applied in all areas of your life: personal, family and home life, community life, work life etc.

The Payoff

We all make unwise choices and experience setbacks. Your harsh inner critic can sometimes make you feel worthless and unlovable. REBS (reality-based self-congratulation) allows you to rebel against the tyranny of that inner critic.

It reminds you that you’re always worthy of respect, love, and forgiveness. Even when you stumble—and especially when you stumble.

Is this simple five-second practice the answer to all life’s problems and challenges? Of course not. Does your brain get rewired immediately? Of course not, it takes consistent practice. REBS needs to become a habit.

Do you still have to decide what really matters to you, make plans, and solve problems? Of course you do.

But REBS is a very useful companion on your journey. That’s because it takes almost no time, yet works powerfully to help you grow out of overly harsh self-criticism. You start to respect and take care of yourself.

Instead of brooding over setbacks, you begin treating each setback as a springboard for small helpful steps, accompanied by self-congratulation.

You become less easily discouraged. In a subtle way, you become almost unstoppable in pursuit of whatever you value deeply. Your perseverance starts to resemble that of determined ants who re-form a broken line, or of a spider who resumes spinning a destroyed web.

Success is no longer confined to the distant future. Instead, it starts to inhabit each meaningful small step that you take in your chosen direction.

You start to rewire your brain. Your inner critic starts to transform into a helpful cheerleader. Instead of a constant stream of negative self-talk, you start to enjoy a steady flow of self-congratulation.

Your confidence grows, and your life starts to become more meaningful, fulfilling and joyful.

This practice of reality-based self-congratulation (REBS) costs virtually nothing. It requires only consistency, so that the helpful new neurons and connections in your brain become well established.

A surprising benefit is that REBS pulls me into the present moment. Instead of brooding over past failures or fearing future uncertainties, I focus increasingly on a small step that carries me in my chosen direction.

REBS has helped transform my life. I have a clearer head and feel more at peace, others often remark that I’m now much more fun to be with, and I’m better off in almost every way. Despite all my flaws and the frequent, inevitable setbacks of life, I’m constantly reminded that I’m okay.

Simple science-based practices with outsize benefits appeal to me because I’m so busy. REBS is one of my favorites among the life-enriching practices I’ve tried and adopted. I love how the practice can be started straight away, and become a treasured, self-empowering part of life.


Whatever the setbacks or failures you’ve experienced, whatever unhelpful choices you’ve made, you’re still okay, you’re always worthy of respect and love.

We all need a bit of understanding and mercy. REBS turns you into a more forgiving and encouraging friend to yourself. It lets the seeds of success be planted in the soil of defeat.

It helps reduce the chaos of a challenging life to a helpful small step, accompanied by self-congratulation.

You might want to start this five-second practice and make it a habit. You could start right away and experience the difference.

About Joel Almeida

Joel Almeida PhD mentors busy doctors and other professionals to protect the one thing that makes all of life better: their brain. His science-based Brain Care guide reveals 10 one-minute practices for better brain health at any age, with more peace and joy now and lowered risk of Alzheimer’s. Now you, too, can get the guide (free today).

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  • Great article on what is essentially about congratulating your small victories. While it may to the outward observer seem trivial, as someone with over 15 years of passivity and learned helplessness (which can be a very debilitating condtion), REBS has the power to change your life, by ulimately making you more empowered. And as you say, you can become slightly mindful as a result of this, due to increase in meaning/excitement. Thanks for sharing

  • I can see how REBS can help you and it can even help if you are on a journey and you congratulate yourself every step of the way. But I am wondering if you can really eliminate unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is in all of us and it arises without us noticing.

  • Shirls2011

    I enjoyed this article, thank you. I love the image of the ants re-forming their line.

  • Thanks for reading, and for your kind words. Yes, I learnt a lot from ants. They’re so powerless in some ways, so easily thrown off their stride by life’s ups and downs. But they’re so powerful because their inner confidence never seems to waver. That’s how they keep going. My wish is that each of us enjoys that inner confidence, no matter what life brings our way. Stay well.

  • Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I wouldn’t know how to eliminate unconsciousness. But I know that life goes better once we cultivate an awareness of how wonderful each human being is. That includes ourselves, no matter what our flaws and failures. Stay well,

  • Thanks, Julian, for reading and for sharing your experience. Helplessness is debilitating, as you say. Accepting one’s limitations and flaws, while continuing with small meaningful steps, can be helpful. Sometimes we’re impatient for the big, distant payoff. We beat ourselves up for not yet being at our chosen destination, or for stumbling. But each little step is a victory, which deserves celebration. Stay well,

  • Jackie

    Thanks for your article. This part,

    “Setbacks become an opportunity for you to recover and practice REBS. The more you do this, the harder it becomes for setbacks and stress to keep you down.”

    reminds me of advice I read in a book about meditation–that the constant redirecting your wandering mind to the present stillness isn’t a failure of meditation but the actual purpose and exercise of meditation, to build and stregthen that concentration muscle in your brain.

    Similarly, REBS is building that positive-thinking “muscle” and I can now view every setback as an opportunity to exercise my positive thinking muscle. I like it! And I will try it. Thanks.

  • Thanks, Jackie, for reading. And for your perceptive comment. I hadn’t thought of the interesting parallel with meditation and attention. That’s very astute of you. I like to think of REBS as a kind of celebration. If I allowed my setbacks or flaws to define me, then I would be stuck in a downward spiral. By celebrating small steps in my chosen direction, I can enlarge my self-image to include small triumphs. Those bring me hope even when everything else seems to be going wrong. Best wishes for your helpful practices and your growing “muscles”. : ) Stay well,

  • OK

    Great article. Great practice. It amazes me the response from the VA that all the money that has been awarded by government to stress management, meditation or mindfulness doctors much rather give meds and really don’t recommend this as a true answer for most conditions. The beauty is changing the habits and conversations we can get stuck in.

  • Thanks for reading, for your kind words, and for your wise comments. The conversations we have with ourselves can have a big influence. I like to make them work for me rather than against me. Stay well and wise,

  • Dishab

    Great article.Your motivating and convincing words have uplifted my bad mood completely. I really needed it at the moment and i hope i could practice this REBS habit..
    Stress and worry really paralyses one, unfortunately it’s been 3 years because of a setback i have developed fear and i get worried on small pity tings.. Even the realization that the issue isn’t that big i still cant help myself. I have developed a pessimist perspective about everything in life. I try hard to gather all the courage and do anything productive (which i know that will make me happy) and all of a sudden reminding myself of all the past failures I loose it all. In fact, i have got tired of even motivating myself and then demotivating myself, it’;s a constant battle and in the end i let the negativity and self criticism win. I know where the problem lies but i had never been able to cure it and i think i have now found the cure.
    Thank you very much for sharing. reading such words give me strength that i am not alone in this battle and help me reassure myself that we human beings all are connected no matter to which part of the world we belong to.We all experience same problems and there are some who help others to come out of their problems.
    I am looking forward to your reply. May God bless you, remember in your prayers.

  • Thanks, Dishab. So glad that this lifted your mood and gave you strength. Yes, we’re all connected and you’re not alone in your problems. REBS has been a cure for me and I hope it will be a cure for you. We all have setbacks and flaws. But remember that you are always worthy of respect and love, just as every human being is. Wishing you the best as you live in the present moment, with gentleness and forgiveness for yourself. May each moment be a new start for you. Stay well,

  • OK

    Great point for me to ponder thank you for the good thought