You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I used to be a master of torture.
Self torture, that is.
For any little mistake I made, I would beat myself up, then relive the agony by replaying the scenarios in my head and condemning my imperfections. I listened to and believed this relentless criticism, consequentially being robbed of self-love and personal power.
I would go out into the world, weakened from the constant mental battering I was inflicting on myself. Forcing a smile, I would find distraction in work, romance, shopping, and TV—anything to get relief from the self-inflicted abuse. I isolated myself in order to not face the world with a fake smile and to spare people the “horrific” experience of being around me.
I know, sad.
I wondered why I was so mean to myself. What could I have done in a past life or in this lifetime to warrant such self-torture? Why did I reserve the harshest judgment for myself?
I had worked with criminals in a prison. I listened to their stories and could see the lack of love and pain that was passed onto them; and then from them. Although I didn’t condone their unlawful behavior, I found that I just couldn’t hate them.
It seemed so illogical.
I took a moment to assess the messages I received growing up. Like most parents, mine wanted the best for me. Unfortunately, criticism was the primary tool my parents used to motivate me and, being a good student, I continued carrying the torch for them. I developed an internal monitor, who told me right from wrong, but mostly what I did wrong.
I had created a giant inner critic. Which basically meant this “character” had a set of behaviors that were there in order to produce the same result. The result was to motivate me to improve faster, to become someone worthy in society and to receive love.
There were other behavior patterns residing in my psyche that helped me to get my needs met. These characters, (such as the protector, the hermit, the social butterfly, the flirt and others) were each serving a specific purpose.
The flirt, for example, helped me make and enjoy new friends by being playful. The hermit knew when I needed to recharge my mental, emotional and physical bodies. The social butterfly helped me find and attract communities that met my different needs.
Some of these selves were created out of necessity when I was young and didn’t have enough safety or kindness in my life. However, I was no longer that little girl. I didn’t really need the inner critic to protect me at this level anymore.
Suddenly, instead of hating my inner critic, I felt compassion for her.
I thought about how hard my inner critic worked to keep me safe from rejection, ridicule, abandonment and other rational and irrational fears. I decided that she had done a great job, but it was time for me to get myself back in balance.
So I began a self-inventory:
- Do I make a genuine effort to call myself out on my mistakes when I am conscious enough to see them?
- Do I make an effort to make amends with people I have hurt?
- Am I someone who genuinely wants to be a balanced individual who serves others?
Yes, yes and yes! Taking it a step further, I realized I could continue to do all of these things without relentlessly criticizing myself.
I affirmed, “I no longer need to torture myself to grow. I allow myself to make mistakes and learn from them to the best of my ability.”
Oh, that felt good to say to myself. I felt freer and more loving towards all of life.
I knew it would take work to sustain and integrate this new belief into my life. In the same way I learn a new language—through repetition—I needed to create a behavior I could do, day in and day out; it had to be simple.
I started a “What I love about myself” list. I even wrote down things I was too shy to acknowledge: “I love my hair. I love my toes. I love my sense of humor. I love my fragile, sensitive heart.” I started reading my list out loud to myself every day and adding to it.
Besides creating a script different from my inner critic’s, maintaining my list had other, unintended benefits.
My neediness toward people started decreasing. I felt that I no longer had a secret need to be comforted, approved or supported by others. I became open to every encounter for what the exchange would bring for everyone involved.
The shift wasn’t overnight, but I kept at it. The more love and appreciation I felt for myself and the less attention I gave to my inner critic, the happier I became. My energy shifted. People were attracted to me as clients and friends. After three months of isolation, I was being invited to parties, camping trips and concerts. I picked where I wanted to be and with whom I wanted to be around.
I felt free to be me, knowing that I had my own acceptance.
Let me share the steps I followed to break out of my personal dungeon:
1. Get to know your inner critic, its voice, and its intentions.
This will help create space between the critic and you. Awareness—that space—is the first step to making any change in our psyche. Notice the chatter while staying in the observer’s seat. You may recognize the voice of your inner critic as an old recording, running on autopilot.
2. Take some time to yourself; go deep inside.
Explore what you could have done to deserve this much self-hate.
You might find an example of a situation where you have wronged someone. Imagine that, instead of you, the person who did the wrongdoing is someone you love, who you could never hate. In this way, let your subconscious help you see these traits or experiences from a different perspective. Once you find those examples, note them consciously.
When we bring acceptance to what we find and hold empathy for ourselves, we will create a fracture in our negative thought pattern. That alone won’t cause the subconscious to release the pattern that quickly, but this is the beginning of change and a huge step!
3. Know that you have the power inside to take the reins from this inner critic.
When we let the inner critic drive the bus of our life, we end up in rugged terrain or dark alleys, missing out on the scenery and its wisdom. Remind yourself that you are in control and stay awake at the wheel! The rest of the work is practice and patience.
4. Don’t expect an overnight change.
When we set expectations within ourselves, we give the stage back to the inner critic.
It will use your “mistakes” and turn them into failures. A bird flies, an inner critic criticizes; it’s just what it does. Knowing this mechanism will help you stay out of the “I have to please my inner critic” game and free up your energy to be in charge of your energy to create.
5. Make a realistic plan.
List three practices you can do to raise your self-esteem.
Make them joyful and fun! These can be as simple as: “I will say ‘I love you’ to myself ten times a day,” or “I will look at myself in the mirror and identify things I like about myself every morning before leaving the house.”
These actions only need to feel do-able to you. This is your plan.
6. Stick with the program.
I get the best results when I keep track of my plan.
Use a journal or mark a calendar each day you complete your intended practice. For me, a day or two of missing my exercises or meditation bothers me and is motivation enough to get me back into it.
7. Hang out with people who make you feel good.
These are the people who see and experience you as who you really are.
Let people who love you reflect the “real you” back to you—pay it forward. Reflect back to others how you see them in a positive light. Practice the balance of receiving and giving.
8. Give yourself full permission to make mistakes.
This means to never beat yourself up if you slip up.
Instead, simply acknowledge the misstep and consider how you want to do it next time. If your inner critic tries to step in, remind yourself of the purpose of the inner critic but remember how it has an outdated method that distorts the reality of who you are as a whole.
9. Talk back to your inner critic.
This may sound crazy, but it works.
When I hear my inner critic say, “You could have gone for a walk instead of watching TV,” I say to myself, “You’re right, but I really enjoyed the movie and I can go for a walk this evening or tomorrow morning.” Stay firm, but kind.
You deserve to be kind to yourself.
My inner critic is still around, but through this process, I am now the one who drives that bus while she sits in the back seat. I found my authentic self again. You can do it, too.
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Apprentice Editor: Alicia Wozniak/Editor: Catherine Monkman