Self Esteem and the Inner Critic
Everyone has an “inner voice”. Even though we may not always be aware of our inner voice, it is there, providing a running commentary of our everyday actions. Sometimes this voice is kind and compassionate, but it can also be critical and judgemental. It is this voice that can influence how we feel about ourselves; our self esteem. Self esteem refers to how we view and think about ourselves and the value that we place on ourselves as a person.
Healthy self-esteem is essential for psychological well being. People with healthy self-esteem like themselves and value their achievements. They have a tolerance for themselves and others, and hold a balanced view of themselves. This translates to healthy relationships, feelings of happiness, self-empowerment, and being more personally and professionally satisfied.
Low self esteem is having a generally negative overall opinion of oneself, judging or evaluating oneself negatively, and placing a general negative value on oneself as a person.
Typically, a person with low self-esteem:
- Is extremely critical of themselves
- Downplays or ignores their positive qualities
- Judges themselves to be inferior to their peers
- Uses negative words to describe themselves such as stupid, fat, ugly or unlovable
- Has discussions with themselves (this is called ‘self talk’) that are always negative, critical and self blaming
- Assumes that luck plays a large role in all their achievements and doesn’t take the credit for them
- Blames themselves when things go wrong instead of taking into account other things over which they have no control such as the actions of other people or economic forces
- Doesn’t believe a person who compliments them.
People with low self esteem usually have a strong “inner critic”, a loud internal voice that can take anything about themselves or something they did or said and make it into something wrong or bad. The “inner critic” says things like:
“I’m such a stupid idiot!”
“It’s all your fault he left you, you just aren’t good enough”
“You’ll never be smart enough to get that job”
“I’m ugly and fat, no one will ever love me”
How does low self esteem develop?
Many factors influence our self esteem and individually we all fall somewhere along the self-esteem spectrum dependent on a variety of factors and life experiences. Studies show that during a child’s first few years parenting style determines the level of self-esteem a child starts their early life with. Parents often do not realise that young children aren’t able to rationalise actions or decisions, and as a result the child receives negative feedback, often delivered in a purposeful tone of shaming. This (often unconscious) lack of awareness in providing an emotionally safe and secure environment for a child is a key factor in the development of low self-esteem.
Experiences at school and throughout adolescence can also impact how we view ourselves. Bullying, perceived under-achievements academically or in the sporting arena, or an absence of rewarding and reciprocal friendships all feed the inner critic. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse and bullying can leave us feeling hurt and ashamed, sometimes hating everything about ourselves.
Effects of low self esteem and a strong inner critic include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, depression, anxiety, anger, shame or guilt.
- Relationship problems
- Fear of trying
- Fear of judgement
- Low resilience
- Lack of self-care
- Self-harming behaviours
At some stage we have to raise our awareness of just how much airtime our inner critic gets and learn to be gentler on ourselves in order to grow and develop a healthier sense of self. Whilst the critic isn’t so easy to cut loose, there are many ways to make it more friend than foe, and to make it work for you in raising your self-esteem.
- Become more aware of your “inner critic” – notice what you say to yourself, how often you are critical of yourself, when, where etc. By becoming more familiar with this voice you can start to change it.
- Talk to yourself positively – treat yourself as you would your best friend. Be supportive, kind and understanding. Don’t be hard on yourself when you make a mistake.
- Challenge negative ‘self-talk’ – every time you criticise yourself, stop and look for objective evidence that the criticism is true. (If you feel you can’t be objective, then ask a trusted friend for their opinion.) You’ll realise that most of your negative self-talk is unfounded.
- Don’t compare yourself to others – recognise that everyone is different and that every human life has value in its own right. Make an effort to accept yourself, warts and all.
- Acknowledge the positive – for example, don’t brush off compliments, dismiss your achievements as ‘dumb luck’ or ignore your positive traits.
- Appreciate your special qualities – remind yourself of your good points every day. Write a list and refer to it often. (If you feel you can’t think of anything good about yourself, ask a trusted friend to help you write the list.)
- Practice mindfulness – concentrate on living in the here-and-now rather than constantly reliving old hurts and disappointments.
- Tell yourself a positive message everyday – buy a set of ‘inspirational cards’ and start each day reading out a new card and carrying the card’s message with you all day.
- Self care – exercise, eat a healthy balanced diet and take time out to do pleasurable activities.
- Be assertive – communicate your needs, wants, feelings, beliefs and opinions to others in a direct and honest manner.
- Practise the above suggestions every day – it takes effort and vigilance to replace unhelpful thoughts and behaviours with healthier versions. Give yourself time to establish the new habits. Keep a diary or journal to chart your progress.
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