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How self-criticism fuels anxiety, & how to manage it.

Written by Kris Kirilova

Kris is a counselor & owner of Career Life Choices – a counseling practice in Arlington Heights, IL.

As a therapist, I often hear clients struggling with an inner critic that puts them down, motivates them to do better but it also judges them harshly.  Self-criticism often leads to anxiety, fear of failure, stress, and avoiding new experiences.  You may be sabotaging your efforts to be successful or withdrawing from others.

A man in his 40’s came to counseling because he could not keep up with the demands at work and home. He was constantly seeking approval from other people to feel good. His strong critical voice was often putting him down, berating him, and expecting perfection.  At work, he had hard time setting boundaries and saying no to projects. He was resentful that he couldn’t enjoy life, and was irritated at home. The critic was questioning all the time: are you good enough?

As you can imagine, living with constant pressure and self-doubt can be exhausting. It’s even more difficult if we have high expectations and criticize ourselves often.  

Here are 5 ways to manage the critic that causes anxiety so you can be more calm and confident.

1. Notice the critic and get curious

Notice when the critic shows up. Is it in particular situations? How often is present? Do you believe what it says?

We all have moments when feel some self-doubt and not good enough.  Our minds produce a stream of thoughts – sometimes more negative than positive. The critic could be a parental figure voice that is still present.  It might be the way you were raised, and the messages you received about failing and achieving.

Sometimes the voice is just there to motivate you to do better.  However notice if you feel more empowered or you feel more inferior. 

Focus on this critical part, and see what it wants from you. What are his/her concerns?
You want to see this critic as a separate part, and get some distance instead of letting it dominate.  Part of being human, it’s also about being less than perfect.

2. Acknowledge its impact

Self-criticism often fuels anxiety and fear of failure. It may sabotage your success, relationships or goals in life.  The inner critic can undermine you to protect you from taking action or going out of your comfort zone. 

Ask yourself if you have hard time saying “NO”. Do you act from a place of fear or inspiration?  I have seen people neglecting their personal values and goals so they can fit in or meet impossible standards.

What would you do differently if you had courage instead of fear? Would you live a different life?

3. Observe your mind and distance yourself from negative content

Become an observer of your thoughts and feelings by noticing them. 

Get some distance by saying: I notice that…my mind is being negative.  The mind wants to keep you in your safe zone.  Let the thought be there but act on your values and what’s most important to you.  Remember to “Feel the fear but do it anyway.”  Accept that the mind will produce some negative thoughts, and choose to distance yourself from the negative content. Otherwise you may be stuck, and living life without room for growth.

4. Reflect on your values.

Spend some time reflecting on what is most important to you. What matters to you in the big picture?  Is it family, improving a relationship, your well-being or work-life balance? May be you like to be a more loving partner, make time for creative pursuits, or change careers. As you reflect on this consider:

Are you’re moving in the direction of your values or away from them?

5. Replace the critic with positive affirmations

Cultivate self-compassion and understanding that as human beings we are imperfect. Re-direct your attention to your strengths and positive qualities.  Change your self-talk to more encouraging and positive messages. We are work in progress, and we have to allow room for trial and error, and growth. You want to feel inspired to build and create instead of feeling paralyzed by self-doubt.  My suggestion is write down affirmations that would empower you when you hit an obstacle. Instead of focusing on your flaws, consider how your talents and actions could help the outside world.

Therapy for self-critical thoughts

If your quality of life is affected, therapy or counseling could be helpful for people who are self-critical or perfectionists. A therapist can help you to gain more insight, practice self-compassion, and mindfulness. Remember to be around people who believe in you, uplift and support your efforts to learn, grow and succeed.

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