In a previous post, I talked about how fear of others’ judgement can get in the way of enjoying the present moment.
That piece also touched on how judging others can be a protective strategy, an attempt to keep ourselves from looking at things that feel scary or shameful. Judgement can also be a way of trying to make ourselves less vulnerable so that, theoretically, we can't be let down or rejected.
When we judge others, we create a barrier which makes it difficult to experience the connection we so desperately crave.
Very often we turn that judgement around to ourselves.
At times, self-judgment can be another kind of protective strategy: if I criticize myself before others do, I can’t be hurt.*
*Note: This does not actually work.
Let’s go back to Zumba class for just a moment.
So many self-critical thoughts can flood through our heads.
I'm so uncoordinated.
I’m too old for this.
I can’t dance.
I’m too fat.
I’m too skinny.
I can’t keep up.
I look foolish.
My [body part of choice] is jiggly.
I'm out of shape.
reconnecting with what matters
When we become aware of self-critical thoughts, it can be helpful to pause and ask ourselves a question.
Why am I here? What was I hoping to get out of this experience?
Whatever the answer is, I'm reasonably certain it wasn't: I was hoping for the opportunity to compare myself to others, feel shame, and ruminate about whether people are judging me or think I deserve to be here.
It was probably something more like: I wanted to lower my stress level, or get my heart rate up, or feel good in my body, or feel connected and present, or have fun, or DANCE.
So do those things.
Be present. Feel the music. Enjoy yourself.
Remember you are lucky to be alive and healthy and strong enough to be doing this.
Ok folks, maybe you don't do Zumba. I get it. No judgement.
But if you're like most humans I've met, you have something you love to do that gets ruined by self-criticism or fear of others' judgement.
Maybe you love to run, but you're tripped up (pun absolutely intended) when you see someone who [is faster, is more fit, looks cuter in their running shorts, etc.].
Maybe you are an artist or a writer, but you are tormented by thoughts like: WHAT WILL THEY THINK OF THIS? WHAT DO I THINK? IS THIS CRAP? I THINK IT'S CRAP? WHO DO I THINK I AM TO THINK THIS IS ANY GOOD? And so on.
When self-critical narratives take over, they cause us to leave the present moment and rob us of potential joy.
So whatever it is you are experiencing (or want to be experiencing), how can you be present and remember why you are there?
This is where mindfulness comes in handy.
Mindfulness, simply put, is paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment without judgement.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness. Here is one way that mindfulness can be applied to daily life to lessen the sting of self-criticism.
1. Notice when self-judgement arises and name it.
(Pro tip: without judging the judgment!)
2. Offer yourself compassion.
3. Come back to the present moment.
4. (Re)connect with what you value about your present experience.
For example: let's say you're the self-critical runner above.
The scene: You see someone run by and the narrative begins.
"He just blew past me. Man, he is in such good shape. Look at those calves! Who do I think I am being out here? He's probably wondering the same thing. I should just quit. I'm not a runner." Aaaaaaand scene.
1. Noticing and naming: "Oh look, there's that rascally critic again!"
You might also bring attention to how you're feeling (e.g., anxious, embarrassed, etc.)
2. Self compassion: Bring some kindness to the part of yourself that feels vulnerable, hurt, or uncomfortable. When we offer some understanding in those tender moments, we can begin to cultivate a more loving and accepting relationship with ourselves.
3. Come back to the present moment: The good news is that just by noticing and naming the critical thinking (rather than being caught up in it), you are already back in the present moment. But other things can help too (e.g., take some intentional breaths; pay attention to the sensations in your body; actively engage your senses).
4. Reconnect with what you value about the experience: "I care about my health." "I love how my body feels when I'm moving." "Running helps me manage my stress." "I'm proud of myself for getting myself out here."
rewriting our self-critical stories
For many of us, self-criticism has become a habitual way of thinking.
If we have a running inner monologue highlighting all the ways we aren’t measuring up, eventually we start to believe it. Over time, this habit can really take its toll on our mood and self-esteem.
We can become so used to the constant stream of negative thoughts that we don't even notice it's happening.
Self-critical thinking is most powerful (and most harmful) when it is invisible to us.
Awareness of self-critical thoughts is an essential first step. As we become more aware of this running story in our minds, we can begin to interrupt it. Over time, we can begin to cast doubt on the self-critical narrative. Each time we pause notice and ask, "Is this true?" about our self-critical beliefs, we diminish their power and a new story begins to emerge.
The new habit may be challenging to develop, especially if we have been practicing self-criticism for a long time. But in time, self-compassion can feel like an option, or if we're lucky, even a new default way of relating to ourselves and our suffering.
Each instance of mindful self-judgment is an opportunity to cultivate a more loving relationship with ourselves.
It's a chance to rewrite our stories, one moment at a time.
fara tucker, lcsw
therapist and teacher in Portland, Oregon