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Defusing from Your Inner Critic – An Excerpt from The Self-Compassion Daily Journal

By Diana Hill, PhD, author of The Self-Compassion Daily Journal

We all have a running commentary in our heads. Sometimes our thoughts are helpful, but often they are downright mean.

Here are some common self-critical thoughts:

• That was stupid

• I don’t fit in

• It’s my fault

• I am ugly/lazy/weak/fat

Unfortunately, the mind can be the most self-critical when we are learning a new skill, stepping out of our comfort zone, or when we’ve made a mistake or lapsed into unhealthy old habits. Many people use self-criticism to motivate themselves to behave better, but the opposite often happens. When you belittle yourself, you’re more likely to:

• Feel shame, anxiety, and depression

• Give up sooner on difficult tasks

• Be less motivated to try again

• Block learning and growth

• Be perceived by others as functioning poorly (Powers and Zuroff 1988)

You may tend to fight back against your critic, think positive thoughts, or “try not to think” negative ones. ACT and self-compassion offer a different approach.

Instead, you can:

• Notice your thoughts without being caught in them

• Get some space from your self-critic

• Let your thoughts come and go

• Choose more compassionate thoughts

Choosing compassionate thoughts doesn’t mean that you let yourself off the hook, inflate your ego, or allow yourself to do things that are harmful to yourself or others. Rather, it’s stepping back from your automatic thoughts and responding in a new way.

Noticing Thoughts

Your ears hear, your eyes see, and your mind thinks! Some thoughts are one-sided (I’m a complete failure), some are perfectionistic (I need to get this just right) and some are helpful to the task at hand (This might work better if I tried it another way).

To defuse from unhelpful thoughts, start by just noticing them. For example, while writing this book, I had two critics in my head: one telling me I wasn’t getting ACT “right” and the other saying I wasn’t getting compassion “right.” The more I listened to those critics, the more fear, anxiety, and shame I felt and the less motivated I was to keep writing. Just noticing That’s my ACT critic and That’s my compassion critic helped me continue to put words on the page.

Unsticking Thoughts

Some thoughts are stickier than others. For example, I often have the thought that I am not a good podcaster, and when I believe it, I overedit. I now keep sticky notes by my computer, write down self-critical thoughts when they show up, and set them aside. With a little distance from them, I can keep putting my voice into the world.

You can’t permanently turn your mind off (nor would you want to) but you can step back from it and choose not to let every thought shape your behavior.

Get out a pile of sticky notes or slips of paper. Write down some of your self-critical thoughts—one thought per note.

Then, hold the thought papers up to your face. How well can you keep journaling when your thoughts are in the way? Now, place the thought papers in your lap. How well can you journal now?

Choosing Helpful Thoughts

In general, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind—especially if it is wandering to unpleasant things (Killingsworth and Gilbert 2010). You may not be able to prevent mind wandering, but you can practice catching yourself when you’re doing it, and shift your attention back to the here and now.

Deliberately attending to the present moment with gratitude can benefit your outlook and mood overall. When a group of students were asked to write a few sentences about gratitude for ten weeks, they were more optimistic and felt better about their lives compared to participants who wrote about daily irritations or events of the day (Emmons and McCullough 2003).

So: When your mind wanders to dread, threat, or self-criticism, catch it, and encourage it to wander to more helpful places like what you’re grateful for right now. Write a gratitude letter to yourself. Right now, what are you grateful for in your life? What are you grateful for about yourself? What changes are you making that you want to thank yourself for? How are you growing? What personal strengths are you grateful for?

– – – –

Emmons, R. A., and M. E. McCullough. 2003. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(2): 377–89. https://doi. org/10.1037/0022-3514.84.2.377.

Killingsworth, M. A., and D. T. Gilbert. 2010. “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 330(6006): 932.

Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-after speaker on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and compassion. Host of the podcast, Your Life in Process—and coauthor, with Debbie Sorenson, of ACT Daily Journal—Diana works with organizations, high-achievers, and health professionals who are committed to becoming psychologically flexible so they can transform their mental health at work, home, and around the globe. Diana practices what she preaches in her daily life as a mom of two boys, bee guardian, and yoga practitioner in Santa Barbara, CA.

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