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Stop “Shoulding” on Yourself!

It’s been an interesting week as I coach and support folks through their various triumphs and challenges in life. One theme that seems to come up time and again in these coaching sessions is the (very human) tendency to judge, criticize, or shame ourselves. One of my mentors referred to this habit as “shoulding on yourself”, and the term really stuck with me--probably both because I find it hilarious and because it rings so true.

The “harsh inner critic” can be such a loud voice and a powerful force in our psyche--particularly when we are attempting to do something new or that we perceive as being scary. Whether you’re learning a second language, trying your hand at a new sport, or attempting to create a podcast, we all fall victim to this critical voice from time to time. It might show up as impatience with yourself (“Why can’t you just DO this already?!”) or harsh comparison to others (“They’re so much better than you--why even bother?”), or just general self-bashing (“You really suck at this!”)

However the “inner critic” shows up for you, it can be helpful to have some tactics to get it to release its grip. Here are several that I have found to be helpful: 

  1. Notice and Name the voice of the inner critic. Sometimes I even give mine an actual name, like “Judge Judy” or “Delia the Devil”. You might picture it as an angry little cartoon character waving its finger at you as it hurls judgments and insults your way. The point is to create some distance from this part and to bring in some levity.

  2. Ask yourself, ‘Whose voice is this?’ Often these critical voices are actually from someone in our past. Just be open and curious to whatever comes up. Realize that you don’t have to continue the pattern that someone else imprinted on you in the past. 

  3. Thank the inner critic for sharing. I know, this may seem counterintuitive, but stay with me here. Just like children who don’t want to be ignored or unappreciated, all the parts of our psyche want to be seen and heard. If we can recognize that, at its core, this part is trying to help us (albeit in a very unhelpful way), we can often help it to settle down and create a little space.

  4.  Decide to create a new pattern of compassion for yourself. I often visualize two doorways in a hallway or a fork in the road where two paths diverge. Imagine that you can close the door to the harsh pattern of relating to yourself and instead choose to open the door of self-compassion and support. Feel the lightness that this choice brings into your body, mind, and spirit. 

  5. Self-Inquiry: Once you’ve chosen the doorway of self-compassion, it can be helpful to ask, “What would be a kinder, more supportive way of relating to myself?” Listen and be open to what comes up in response. 

  6. Picture yourself as a small child. How would you support this child if they were struggling or frightened? I like to carry a photo of myself as a toddler (or to keep one easily available on my phone). I find that seeing this younger, more vulnerable version of me brings in a deeper well of compassion and a softer way of relating to myself.

  7. Remind yourself to have a Growth Mindset. This means that in order to do something well, you often have to be willing to do it poorly at first. As author Anne Lamott likes to say, Allow yourself to “write a shitty first draft!

The bad news is that most of us will battle with the tendency to criticize ourselves at times. But the good news is that, like many things, this is a pattern--a habit--that can be interrupted and redirected. With attention, patience, and a healthy dose of humor, we can learn to tune out the voice of the inner critic, allowing us to reparent our inner child with the loving support and compassion it deserves. 

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