3 min read

How to Change the Structure of Self-Criticism to Improve How You Feel About Yourself

A 2-level game/exercise about your relationship with your mind (the ego) — and the 'other.'
How to Change the Structure of Self-Criticism to Improve How You Feel About Yourself

Have you ever paid attention to your self-talk when feeling bad about yourself?

Do you speak to yourself so critically, that if you were to speak in the same manner to your beloved or a child, you would be shocked by your own words?

This is an interesting challenge for the ego, especially when we are stuck in our head and so self-reflexive that we don’t realize the problem with the ego and our identification as, “I”.

I — yes me — used to speak about myself in the worst way.

Looking back I would call my mental chatter abusive.

I was horribly hard on myself, and I think I attracted a mentor at the time who was a classic alpha male bully. He knew how to get into my head during group coaching calls and made me feel like a helpless little boy. I looked up to him and allowed myself to trust his expertise, telling myself that his mentoring style must be helping me.

Why else was I suffering so much?

Garbage in = garbage out

Any form of shaming, bullying, or manipulation in coaching is unacceptable. My former coach made me feel like garbage and I ate it up. And while it took me a long time to transform my self-talk, I learned a valuable lesson about how not to talk to others.

This included how not to talk to me.

Let’s play a game to minimize negative self-talk.

There are two levels of fun in this game! The first level happens in your mind and the second on paper.

Level 1: Change the Linguistic Structure of Self-Criticism

In this first level, when you catch yourself being self-critical or shaming yourself for whatever reason, change the linguistic structure of your self-talk.

Instead of saying, “I am a bad person”, insert your first name and change the verb conjugation to the second person, e.g., “Darren, you are a bad person.”

Notice the difference in how that feels, even though you’re saying it inside your mind.

Does it feel more judgemental?

Does it feel like someone else is criticizing you?

Does it help you pay more attention to the criticism when it’s not completely self-referential, using “I”?

Level 2: Handwriting Exercise

The second level to playing this game is to take your thoughts and write them down on paper.

Please note this is not an exercise to do on your computer or mobile phone. This is most effective when done by hand for self-awareness and deep learning.

Write out the exact same criticisms, but with one modification: Change your name in the criticism to the name of the person you most love. That might be your partner, child, or best friend.

Once you’ve completed writing out these negative and self-deprecating criticisms — only this time directed at the person you most love — read them to yourself aloud. Again, please note the important criterium for this practice: do not read these criticisms in your head — read them aloud.

How does that make you feel?

How do you feel about yourself now that you are directing criticism at someone you love and care about?

Most likely you feel horrible for speaking to them in that manner, even though this is just an imaginary game.

Finally, ask yourself why it’s acceptable for you to speak to yourself (in your head) in this unregulated, self-deprecating, and highly critical fashion.

If someone were to speak to you in this way, how would you respond?

You might react defensively, telling them that they have no right to speak to you in this way. You might ask them why they feel they have the right to be critical of you.

This is a subtle, yet powerful exercise to understand our relationship with ourselves, within the confines of our minds, and the relationships we want to have with others. This helps you to see the distinction between subject versus object: us versus them, or me versus you. In this example, the drama (and the emotional harm) happens inside your own mind.

Imagine you spoke to everyone you met, regardless of who they are and whether you knew them or not, in the same critical and judgemental way you do with your internalized self-talk.

Extrapolate from the idea of this mental exercise to the point where you speak only positively of yourself with your self-talk, and you speak to and of others in exactly the same positive and respectful manner.

Imagine if this mental reframing of the egotistical, internalized self-criticism of the “I” could be an evolutionary step forward in minimizing extreme forms of othering, which manifest as sexism, racism, bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, and so on.