If you had to characterize your inner monologue, how would you see it? Do you imagine a drill sergeant following you around barking orders and criticizing anything less than perfection? Do you imagine the voice of a close loved one who speaks kindly when you make a mistake? Most people probably feel like the former is a little closer to the truth than the latter. In a society where perfection is a must, mistakes are punished heavily, and everything feels publicized, it can be really hard to find the voice of self-compassion within you. The good news is that your inner critic, the drill sergeant, can be quieted down, and even silenced. It’s hard to ignore the drill sergeant when he’s shouting, but every time it happens, you can practice making your compassionate voice a little louder with these self-compassion exercises.
1: Challenge Negative Thoughts
If you’re the type of person who regularly receives positive feedback at work, yet you feel like you’re doing a horrible job after one criticism, this is a great exercise to help you start learning to identify your inner critic. Feel free to use these as journal prompts, or just practice thinking them when you notice a negative thought happen:
- Is there substantial evidence for my thought? “Substantial” is the key word here. In the example above, one instance of criticism in your full work history is not substantial. Maybe at this point, you’ve started thinking of every mistake you’ve ever made. That’s why the next point is essential:
- Is there evidence contrary to my thought? Before you fall into a spiral of all your past mistakes, catch yourself and reflect on all the positive feedback you’ve received. Sometimes it can be hard to remember the good things when you’re thinking of the bad. In that case:
- Am I attempting to interpret this situation without all the evidence? Even if you can remember all the good things you’ve done, you can never know what’s going through another person’s head. Have you received criticism unfairly because your boss was having a bad day? Did they misinterpret your actions or intentions? Were they unaware that you were following a different person’s instructions? These are things you can’t know unless you talk to them about it.
When you do this exercise regularly, you train yourself to notice negative thoughts more quickly. Getting curious about why these thoughts are happening and whether they’re valid in the first place is the first step in your journey toward self-compassion.
2: Thinking Neutral Thoughts
This exercise is a stepping-stone toward thinking positively about yourself. If you really struggle with accepting compliments, or if affirmations never really work for you, start here. All you need to do is notice negative self-talk and reframe it in a neutral way. For example:
- “I always forget to finish projects before they’re due, I’m such an idiot.” becomes “I regularly forget about projects. What do I need to do to nip this in the bud?”
- “I’ve been so lazy today. I need to get my ass up and work.” becomes “Some days are harder than others, and today is a hard day.”
- “My coworker must think I’m so stupid for asking this.” becomes “My coworker asks me things sometimes. Today it’s my turn to ask them something.”
It can also help to connect self-critical thoughts with their underlying emotions. Depending on your relationship with your emotions, this can be easier or harder than coming up with neutral statements. Here are some examples of changing self-critical thoughts to emotional ones:
- “I shouldn’t wear that, it’s way too much and I can’t pull it off.” becomes “I’m afraid I’ll be overdressed if I wear that, and I don’t have the mental capacity to be the center of attention tonight.”
- “Why can’t I just make myself work out!” becomes “I’m feeling frustrated because I’m not working out.”
- “This is a disaster! I shouldn’t have come to work today at all.” becomes “I’m afraid that the mistake I made was big enough to have me punished or fired.”
Connecting your negative thoughts with emotions can make it easier to go into problem-solving mode, which can distract you from beating yourself up.
3: Give Yourself a Break
This is for situations in life that are highly stressful. Think about the situation in your mind, and allow yourself to feel uncomfortable and stressed out. Now, say the following to yourself:
- This is a moment of suffering.
- Suffering is a part of life.
- I can be kind to myself when I am in a moment of suffering.
If you find number 3 to be a little tricky, try imagining a loved one in the same situation as you, and think about how you would treat them in that case. Would you come over and help them with care tasks like cooking or cleaning? Would you check in on them? Could you give them extra grace if they canceled on you or didn’t respond to messages for a while? Now try turning those feelings inward toward yourself. You don’t have to be perfect the same way that your friends or family don’t.
4: Extend Compassion Toward Your Inner Critic
It’s really important to try to notice your critical thoughts well before you begin this exercise. Any time you feel negatively, take a moment to try to recall exactly what your inner monologue said verbatim. If you eat half a pizza, does your inner monologue say something like “You’re disgusting,”? Try to get a clear sense of how you talk to yourself and which phrases are your inner critic.
Once you can identify that reliably, start coming at that critical voice in a compassionate way. Respond with something like “I know you’re feeling unsafe right now and you’re communicating in the best way you know how, but you’re hurting me when you speak like that.” Over time and with consistency, you may notice that drill sergeant shouting with a little less steam.
5: Think Compassionate Thoughts
If you’ve done the previous exercises for a few weeks and feel like you’re starting to get a handle on your inner critic, it’s time to dust off the old affirmations again. It’s important to understand that they still may not work. The best affirmations and compassionate thoughts are the ones that are worded your way and the ones your mind deems believable. That is why the second exercise had you practice neutral thoughts first. Once you start to believe you’re a neutral person instead of a bad one, you can dip your toe into believing you’re a good person. Here are some examples of turning neutral thoughts into self-compassionate ones:
- “I’m feeling frustrated that I didn’t get much work done today.” becomes “Maybe I didn’t get much done today, but I tend to get a lot done on an average day. I don’t need to beat myself up over one day of less productivity.”
- “I put chores off for so long that I feel like I should just give up and do them tomorrow.” becomes “I know doing chores is annoying, but I will feel so much better if I do at least one now. Which one is the most pressing?”
- “I’m really angry at myself for falling off the wagon with my diet.” becomes “When I fall off the wagon, I can still keep walking behind it until I have the energy to get back on. My diet is good for me and I want to take care of my health.”
If you’ve done the previous exercises, your inner critic should be a little quieter, and your self-compassion should be a little louder. If not, keep practicing!
Self-compassion is gained when you start to think of your inner critic as something separate from yourself. You can question its validity, extend some kindness to it, and quiet it down enough to think more positively about yourself. The drill sergeant shouts because he believes that shouting is the only way to make you better, but you need to get him to stop shouting before you can teach him that you’re fine just as you are.
If you’re struggling with self-compassion and you’re tired of trying things that don’t seem to be helping, reach out to Modern Era Counseling, where our team of premier therapists can help you learn to internalize positive thoughts and question negative ones. Give us a call at 704-800-4436 or shoot us an email to get started on your journey toward a brighter you.