How to stop being your own worst critic?
July 8, 2019 10:04 PM   Subscribe

After much self reflection I came to the realization that I have a very negative self criticizing voice that just brings me down constantly. I'm a pretty decent dude but my internal voice tell me I'm a complete piece of shit. Help?

If I miss a week of going to the gym it tells me I'm lazy, fat and spiraling out of control.
If my nutrition becomes unhealthy I beat myself about being weak.
I will drive in my car and will relive conversation of my social mishaps of years past.
If things don't go "Perfectly" in social gatherings, work and relationships that's 100% bad and not a regular ebbs and flows of living life in a chaotic world.
If 9 good things happen and 1 bad thing happens I will focus 90% of my attention on the negative one.

The frustrating thing is that to the external objective eye, I seem to have my shit together and overall a decent guy. I have a loving girlfriend. I make six figures despite not having any formal education. I am in top physical shape and go to the gym 3-4 times a week.


1. This is going to sound very arrogant but I'll ask anyway, is part of being high performing, high achieving person is having this non stop nagging voice that keeps telling you can do better, never let go?

2. Are there any mental tricks or daily rituals that have helped you?

3. Is it time to seek therapy? If so which kind? CBT?

4. Has medication helped you?

Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
is part of being high performing, high achieving person is having this non stop nagging voice

You might be interested in Imposter Syndrome. That you identify as high performing/ achieving kind of disqualifies you from the traditional meaning.

There's also the Peter Principle where people are promoted to positions outside of their competencies and persist in those positions despite their obviously poor fit.
posted by porpoise at 10:16 PM on July 8

I think that having these kinds of anxieties can certainly drive someone towards high performance. But to take some wisdom from the world of animal training: it's usually considered that heavy use of "punishment" as a training tool has the side effect of inhibiting creative behaviours in the long run, as well as associating the negativity too broadly, i.e. disencentivising other things that happened at the same time but that weren't meant to be the target of the punishment.

I guess your intrusive thoughts are effectively a form of self-punishment (as in, that's the effect they're having on you), so therefore it seems plausible that you could be more high performing if you figured out how to lose the self-flagellation.

Personally, while I never went to therapy I'll use CBT-ish tricks on myself and this has improved things somewhat. Thank you, negative voice, for trying to keep me healthy and successful, but some of the things you say are cognitive distortions! And they're not very kind, so, negative voice, let's think of something more constructive to say, or else just hear you out until you calm down, the way we'd deal with a toddler having a meltdown.
posted by quacks like a duck at 11:00 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

You've taken the first big step, which is to identify unhelpful self-talk as the issue that needs addressing; so many people get stuck on trying to fix whatever it is that the unhelpful self-talk is about.

I wrote a recent reply to a question about feeling like your friends are mad at you which covers most of what I can offer you. The main thing I can add to that for you is that as a high achiever you probably need to focus as much on the internal tone of your instant corrections to faulty beliefs as anything else; keep it kind in there.

The other thing I've found useful when dealing with this kind of issue is careful analysis of how having a vicious internal critic actually works. I think many people fall into the same conceptual trap that I used to fall into myself, which is modelling that critic as an entity and attempting to work out what it wants and why it wants that and how it got there and how to appease it or destroy it or bargain with it or discipline it or whatever.

It's an inviting trap, because we learn early that things in our world with readily repeatable perceptions have object persistence. If you perceive redness and roundness over there, and then you duck down behind the couch and don't perceive it any more, but then you pop your head back up and perceive redness and roundness over there again, the explanation that fits most easily into our developing worldview is that the redness and roundness belong to a thing with its own existence, and that such existence is continuous even when we're not actively perceiving it: there is a red ball over there.

But things get much slipperier when we start examining perceptions of our own internal states. Perception is a dynamic and ongoing process, and it is simply not necessarily the case that recognizing an internal state that we remember perceiving before supports a model that makes that state a property of some persistent internal object.

In particular, this applies to the sense of self: when I think about I, that thought is straight-up self-referential: unlike the perception of a red ball, the perception of that thought has full access to itself. And that means that the thing that the thought is actually about - i.e. itself - disappears as soon as I think about something else instead. I have no internal self with object persistence, despite the fact that every time I look for I, there I am; the act of looking-for is the act of creation, and the object so created is a process like a flame, not a static object like a ball; it looks a lot like it did last time but in fact it's a new thing every time.

My actual self - the object that genuinely does have persistence - is the human body that's doing the thinking, not the thought it happens to be thinking or the perception it happens to be processing at any particular instant. This thing Iwalk around in and feed well and take to the gym and that sticks around even when I'm sleeping: this is the only truly object-persistent me.

And the same thing applies to the internal critic. There is no genuine, conceptually separable internal critic, any more than there is a genuine and conceptually separable internal You. There is only the actual embodied you; and each vicious self-critical thought is a habitual behaviour that the embodied you has been practising for many years and is, as a consequence, now quite skilled at performing without needing to pay much attention to what it's doing.

Which is good, because it means that there is nothing at all except attention and work between you as you are now and you with a less vicious critical habit. There is no savage internal critic to analyze or overcome or de-fang. There is only a specific habitual behaviour, no more mysterious than picking your nose or always putting your car keys in your left pocket, that you can work on altering until the altered behaviour becomes your new habit.
posted by flabdablet at 11:06 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]

In particular, I expect you will find, once you actually examine the situation closely, that the "I" in "I am fat and lazy and spiralling out of control" is in fact just itself - something akin to a picture or model of you - and not the genuinely persistent embodied you which, on evidence from your mirror, is actually quite buff.
posted by flabdablet at 11:16 PM on July 8

This stuff happens to everyone. It's a part of the human condition. People that are not high functioning are just as apt to beat themselves up.

CBT is exactly designed to deal with thoughts like these, so it would likely be helpful. Other helpful practices include meditation and volunteering. Volunteering helps you focus on other people and their problems for a while. It helps you develop empathy, not just for others, but for yourself. One way to quickly quiet this voice is to do something for someone else.

Nothing shuts up that voice telling you you are a loser because you didn't make it to the gym like feeding people in a soup kitchen for an hour. It helps put your problems in perspective.
posted by xammerboy at 12:28 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]

1. This is going to sound very arrogant but I'll ask anyway, is part of being high performing, high achieving person is having this non stop nagging voice that keeps telling you can do better, never let go?

Not intrinsically. I used to also think my voice was part of being high performing and was reluctant to let go of it, and then I talked to several high performing people who did not (ever) have such a voice. It was a revelation - you mean you can just become a better person without constantly beating yourself up??

Yes, you can, and when I ditched the beating myself up i became significantly more productive and effective, actually.

2. Are there any mental tricks or daily rituals that have helped you?

Yes. I have consciously imagined the voice as an entity separate from myself, and asserted boundaries with it. "you can't talk to me like that". "thank you for your input, however if you don't have any practical solutions to offer then that is enough for now". If I don't have the time to indulge the negative voice I tell it so and immediately occupy myself with something else.

In my opinion, bullying is unacceptable. If I wouldn't accept it from a stereotypical Disney mean girl villain, then I don't need to accept it from myself either. Just because a voice is coming from inside of me does not make its observations any more intrinsically correct and legitimate.

3. Is it time to seek therapy? If so which kind? CBT?

It could help, it helps many people, my experience was more a vast "meh"

4. Has medication helped you?

Can't answer haven't tried
posted by Cozybee at 12:29 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]

So I'm a dude who has a tendency to ruminate on negative situations, replays a lot of conversations in the shower, waiting to go to sleep etc. And it reached a head a few years ago due to a stressful work situation, and I went to a doctor and got a referal to a psychologist. She put me through a program of CBT exercises and some other practices, and buddy, it made a big difference to me.

Externally, maybe it didn' t make much of a difference (except to my family, who saw me in the pits). Internally, though, which is where all this was coming from, it really turned me around from heading into a bad direction, to heading in a much more positive direction.

CBT is especially good for breaking habits, and negative self-talk and rumination is a habit. I am a smart guy who has spent a lot of time thinking, and thinking about thinking, but I had never fundamentally understood the connection between thoughts ("I'm a bad person!"), feelings ("I feel like a piece of shit!"), and actions ("I'm going to do something that will make me feel even shittier, like setting an unrealistic goal!"). I had thought it was a linear relationship, typically with actions driving everything. Not so!! A cornerstone of CBT is that the relationship between these three things is reinforcing, and reciprocal, and that they all influence each other.

Thus, changing one of these things, can lead to changes in the others and it really did work for me. It wasn't all CBT for me, there were elements of DBT to the work I was doing as well, and it was work, make no mistake. I was breaking down thought patterns that took years to build up.

A few things that have really stuck with me:

- Asking yourself, "what would you say to a friend in this situation?". When I started doing this, I saw how incredibly harsh I was to myself. My interior dialogue was something I would never say to a friend, because it was just mean, shitty things. When I was falling into patterns, I would ask myself this question, and generate an honest response, and then tell it to myself. It's sobering, when you realise how much nicer you are to your friends, than your own self. This simple question has led me to be far more compassionate, and yeah even loving, towards myself.

- A great book by a neuroscientist, How Emotions are Made. This is not a self help book. It's a science book, but I found it sooooo illuminating, because the author illustrates how so many of the thoughts we attach to our emotions are generated after the fact by a brain searching for a just-so story to tell. It helped me reframe my darker moods to something that just happens and will soon pass, like a leg injury that flares up, rather than the expected result of my deficiencies as a human being and inability to cope with things that others seem to have no problem with.

- An app called Mood meter. I really liked this app. It's diagnostic, not like a self help tool, per se. Basically throughout the day, open the app, and check in emotionally with how you are feeling (positive and negative). Type up a brief description of your current situation, if you like. Close the app. What you're doing is building up an emotional data bank that you can then analyse. When are you at the highest points? What things make you saddest or angry etc? What emotions are regularly cropping up, do they appear at the same times? Do they have the same triggers? You will start to get a really rich insight into your ongoing emotional states, and you can then start to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. So simple and intuitive, but such rich results.

- CBT techniques. Practitioners will talk about a lot of terms. They all basically boil down to 1) recognising cognitive distortions that are caused by depression/anxiety (no capitals, I'm talking about the feelings not the conditions necessarily), and 2) demolishing them and putting something positive in their place. Here's a good summary of what I mean. Everything mentioned above is essentially in aid of these two goals. Here's a page with some links to worksheets around this. I found this very powerful in my... mental rehabilitation if you will. But you gotta be prepared to do the work. Thankfully, people like us are often very driven taskmasters, so I had no difficulty putting the effort in and I don't think you will, either.

Before I position everything as too miraculous - I'm not "cured". I will never be cured' Anxiety is part of who I am, similar to how it was for my parents. This is something that comes and goes, every day, to a greater or lesser degree. This is - just like any other chronic illness (and I think having a chronic stomach illness, colitis, was very helpful in my getting this) - requires management and care. It will have flare ups, and good days and bad days. It means I might not always be able to do things I want to do, or how I want to do them (eg take pleasure from them).

But what putting this time into myself has changed is:
1) I am not reflexively pouring my anxiety onto my kids, the way my parents did to me. I'm not perfect, but I'm a damned sight better than they were, and I live in hope my somewhat anxious eldest will not face the struggles I have, at least in part because of my parenting. And if she does, she knows she won't be alone, and how to get some help for it.

2) I am kinder to myself. Less uptight about missing things, or not measuring up (still not crazy about being late, but hey we're all works in progress!)

3) I care less about work (actually a good thing, caring too much is my problem), I'm less afraid to fail and I don't care as much about what others think (I still care too much, but again, heading in a better direction). I'm also more confident in what I can do, regardless of how I perceive others value it.

4) I don't care about my feelings as much. Weird thing, but I think of them more now as things that happen. I don't hold them tight to me.

It's made a big difference to my life. I know this is a novel, but you don't have to feel the way you do. I thought I did and wasted so many hours being unhappy because that's just the way it is. It's not the way it is. My wife is a super over-achiever, much more so than me (and, like, I do okay). She struggled with my difficulties initially, because she has never experienced that level of self doubt or negative self talk. It's just an empty silence in that part of her brain. And she's brighter than a supernova.

You don't need this voice. It's only holding you back, like it holds back all the other over-achievers trussed in a razorwire of negativity, hurting themselves and anyone they touch. You don't have to be like that. The best people, the best leaders, aren't. Let it go. Give yourself permission to work to let it go.

Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 4:51 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]

This might not specifically apply to you, but the book "Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving" by Peter Walker discusses addressing the 'inner critic', how to acknowledge and deal with it, possible sources of it, and fundamentally, learning how to be kind to yourself.
posted by erattacorrige at 6:45 AM on July 9

I have similar issues. I did CBT for a long time and never really found it particularly helpful. I've been seeing a trauma therapist for talk therapy instead and the difference is huge. For me, a lot of that "part of being high performing, high achieving person is having this non stop nagging voice" thing you describe comes from my own childhood, where my parents pushed me really hard to excel in a way that I can now see was, at best, very unhealthy. So trauma therapy has been useful, I think, because the nagging voice that I now carry around in my head is a direct result of trauma. This may not be the case for you, but I did want to mention it.

Another thing I do is I self soothe, and I say to myself things using a tone/language that I'd use with a small kid who was hurting. I say things, sometimes aloud, like "Ok, things are ok, you're ok," or "Now, be nice, please, we're nice in this house." I often use my own nickname for myself when I say these things, as if I were talking to someone else. It kind of helps me remove myself from myself a bit, if that makes sense, and to treat myself with the same compassion that I'd extend to anyone else who was suffering in a similar way.

Take care, and I'm sorry that you're hurting in this way.
posted by sockermom at 7:08 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]

Don't forget that your inner critic is only one voice and rather than train the inner critic to shut up by arguing with it, you can simply cultivate a new inner fan, and a new inner loving parent and coax those two voices to become voluble and not let poor inner critic get a word in edgewise. So instead of, or as well as the CBT - why am I saying this, is this true, which form of cognitive error is happening here - you can simply turn on the inner fan, who can be roughly modeled after you long before you managed to attain what you have and encourage that inner voice to suitably impressed that you got up after only the second time the alarm went off, or how lucky you are to now have that consumer item that you used to wish you could someday attain, and then switch to the inner loving parent who can encourage rather than praise.

This takes awareness of what you are thinking, and some deliberate work at it, and may require you to script some of the good inner voices in order to get them started, but often the best way to silence a detractor is simply go talk to someone else.

I suspect that most high achievers do not have that voice. It's a handicap and when all else is equal the handicapped person is going to have to work harder. Of course someone compensating for a handicap may work harder and longer than someone without the handicap and end up producing more or more skillful, but that higher level of achievement is not worth the misery if they can get rid of the handicap. I am sure if you asked someone who practices for eight hours a day if they would like it if they could get the same results in only four hours, and have four hours to either not practice or to play for fun they would mostly jump at the chance.

You are basically asking if negative incentive is essential for success and the answer is very much no. Those who only have positive incentive are much happier and feel much more successful than those with the negative incentives, which often result in them feeling like they failed no matter what happens. The greatest success comes from having the highest ration of positive incentives to negative incentives.
posted by Jane the Brown at 7:31 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]

the author illustrates how so many of the thoughts we attach to our emotions are generated after the fact by a brain searching for a just-so story to tell

This is key. How many times have you heard people explaining "I feel like..." followed by some long screed on a topic that clearly has emotional heft for them but isn't actually super effective at communicating what they're feeling to you?

It's a really widespread habit, and it comes from failing to understand that feeling itself is a whole-body experience that just is what it is, while what we say we "feel like" is, 99% of the time, a story we're telling ourselves about that feeling in order to slot it neatly into our present worldview and make it make sense to us. And this makes sense to other people only to the extent that their worldview overlaps with our own.

As Jill Bolte Taylor puts it, based on her lifelong study of brain anatomy and how we're actually wired: we are not thinking creatures who feel, we are feeling creatures who think. The feeling stuff literally runs on different neural circuitry from the thinking stuff, and the way we're layered and connected means that the feeling stuff gets first crack at whatever we're perceiving, and it filters the information made available to the thinking stuff.

Feeling is an activity performed by neural circuits dedicated to that purpose, and it can be triggered both "from below" as a result of information arriving via the senses and their associated perceptual processing circuitry, or "from above" as a result of some thought we happen to be having about the world and our own current place in it. However it's triggered, the feeling itself works exactly the same way, and one of the things that feelings do - along with messing with our skeletal musculature and our guts and our adrenal glands - is kick off further activity in the thinking parts.

There is nothing at all that can or should be done about the actual feelings except paying attention to them while we ride them out. But we can learn to attach new stories to them, and with a bit of applied creativity we can work out new stories that don't re-trigger and perpetuate them but instead lead us fairly quickly toward feeling something else entirely.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]

is part of being high performing, high achieving person is having this non stop nagging voice that keeps telling you can do better, never let go?

Joining the chorus of noes on that.

It seems to me that the non-stop nagging is a habit we generally pick up as children by internalizing the admonitions of adult authority figures. If we have the misfortune to be surrounded by adults who are more concerned with pushing us to do better in areas where we struggle, as opposed to figuring out where our strengths are and helping us make best use of those in the pursuit of competent adult autonomy, we end up with more internal nagging and less internal self-confidence.

Various studies have shown that parents who take a strengths-oriented view of the parenting task end up with kids who do better than those of parents who take a weakness-correcting view, and I encourage you to seek out those studies if you remain in any doubt that confidence plus competence beats nagging and carping hands down.

And although kids are rather more plastic and malleable than adults, the basic machinery still works the same way in all of us even if we do stiffen up as we age. It's never too late for an autonomous adult to begin shifting themselves around to a strengths-oriented view of their own performance, and the personal benefits of doing so are considerable.

I, for example, am no longer the irredeemably lazy slob I was convinced I was in my twenties; rather, I am a person capable of judiciously choosing what I do and how I do it in order to execute such tasks as remain necessary with commendable efficiency. I work no harder now than I did then, but now I don't feel a need to waste effort on beating myself up for that, so I get even more time to enjoy being alive. It's nice.
posted by flabdablet at 8:00 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]

I recently read something helpful that I will try to paraphrase:
Your inner voice talks a lot of shit for something that has never accomplished anything. Ignore that bitter old thing.
posted by soelo at 8:13 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]

I've found these self-compassion exercises helpful, and that might be another useful search term for you. Nthing that you will actually be more productive if you treat yourself kindly!
posted by momus_window at 11:06 AM on July 9

Make a list of awards, achievements, etc., put it in a folder. There's no criteria for this, it can be a picture of the fence you painted, an award from school, a kind letter, scribbled list of stuff you feel good about. Use it to remind yourself that you have done good stuff. Also, if you include training you've received, it may be useful for resumes and cover letters.

Write affirmations that feel right to you. There are websites full of them. Literally, every day, stand in front of a mirror and recite 5 - 10 of them. Your inner self hears you and learns. You'll feel like a goober the 1st few times, but you'll get over that.

Look into hypnosis, and a certified practitioner who can teach you self-hypnosis, ideally with limited woo. There's a lot of research showing that hypnosis is effective at behavior and attitude change for a person who wants to change.

Martin Seligman writes about happiness. My brother was greatly helped by the book Authentic Happiness. I think that's where he learned the technique of wearing a rubber band on your wrist and snapping it and thinking Stop when you have persistent negative thoughts; my brother had mild OCD and found this practice very helpful.

One thing I've really learned is that negative thoughts are typical; most people feel them. Don't yell at or blame yourself for having them.
posted by theora55 at 11:09 AM on July 9

1. In Brene Brown's book, The Gifts of Imperfection, she talks about the relationship between shame and perfectionism. They drive each other. If you're trying to be perfect and high achieving, shame is always going to be telling you you're not X enough. Here's a short clip.
I've also been recommending the book to everyone.

2. I went to a leadership conference and one really helpful session was on "Creating an Inner Coach Stronger than your Inner Critic," so I've been practicing developing my inner coach's voice. Lots of people have an inner critic like yours, who can take various forms (defeater, invalidater, worrier, critic, etc.), and the gist was that you have to develop an inner coach voice too. The inner coach encourages, is reasonable, doesn't personalize, is aware of the negative voice, and provides perspective.

One really powerful exercise we did was to to introduce ourselves to the table as the identity our inner critic tells us to believe. "Hi, I'm anonymous and I'm lazy, fat, and spiraling out of control." We went around and shook hands and looked at each other and said those things. It was so powerful because it was SO ridiculous and to say it out loud with others listening; we heard how cruel and unreasonable we were being to ourselves. Then we went around and re-introduced ourselves with a quality we're proud of "Hi I'm anonymous, and last month I ran my fastest 10k ever."

There was more to the talk than I can summarize here, but basically the advice was to track the negative behavior and be mindful about practicing the shift. So when you catch yourself re-playing all the dumb stuff you said at the meeting, stop and identify the trigger ("no one responded to my suggestion"), the thought ("no one responded because my idea was dumb"), the feeling (embarrassment or whatever), the story you're telling yourself ("people at work think I'm dumb and I won't be asked to join projects"), and then the destructive action ("I'll quit my job/won't be promoted"). THEN practice turning your coach voice on, and go through each of those. What are other "stories" about what happened ("This is a story I'm telling myself. I don't know what others were thinking. Maybe they didn't understand my idea; maybe they thought my idea would be too hard to implement, etc. etc.")? This is where the coach's perspective, encouragement, and reasonableness are good to practice.

The presenter was Dr. Beth Weinstock. I think she has a training program based on this, so she might be worth googling.
posted by kochenta at 12:43 PM on July 9 [5 favorites]

I HEAR YOU... My biggest piece of advice is to change how your inner critic talks to you. Here are 2 tiny shifts that have made an enormous difference to me:

1) Stop using 'I' and start saying 'you' instead. For me, that has been hugely helpful in giving the inner critic less authority/credence. If I say to myself 'I'm such a lazy bum', that feels a lot worse than 'You're such a lazy bum'. Using the second person voice brings it outside of myself, to where I'm much better able to let it go and stop ruminating. It transitions it to something I'm doing, not something I'm being, which is a lot easier to change.

2) Stop saying 'should' and start saying 'could' instead. So instead of beating myself up with 'I should have gone to the gym', I try to say 'I could have gone to the gym'. The first makes me feel like a total failure, the second makes it sound more like a choice that maybe I got wrong this time (or maybe not!), but I can choose differently next time.

These 2 things have been hugely beneficial to me. Really hope they help you as well.
posted by widdershins at 11:37 AM on July 10 [1 favorite]

I hope you are still reading because there is an absolutely wonderful book on using mindfulness to deal with your inner critic called "Taming Your Gremlin" What I liked best was the author understand that just reading a self-help book will wake up your critic - See what's wrong with you! Why aren't you following his advice! - and give you tools for dealing with that like "it's ok to put it down and come back later" "don't worry about trying perfectly understand things, everything important will get repeated" It is one of the few self help books that ever made me relax instead of more uptight.
posted by metahawk at 1:30 PM on July 10 [1 favorite]

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