A Coping Plan for Self-Criticism

Let’s say you are doing something that causes you emotional stress. For instance, you feel you’re always blaming yourself when things “go south.” You’re also disgusted with yourself because deep down you know it’s ridiculous to imagine that you’re always to blame.

You get so fed up with all this self-blame that you decide it is time bring this tendency under your control. No one is telling you or forcing you to be self-critical so you know you can work to control it and do it less often. OK, working from that decision and desire, how do you go about tackling this problem.

First you have to assess where you are. You need what’s called a baseline that tells you how often you criticize yourself each day. To find out you need to start keeping a record. This is simple enough. Several times during the day, when you have a break from work or home responsibilities, reflect back on the past few hours. Note any conversations you have had, and examine your comments and your thoughts for any indications of criticizing yourself. Also write down details of the situation, such as time of day, where the behavior took place, and any other people involved. If you’re able, you can also do this recording right after realizing you’re being self-critical.

At the end of the day, record the frequency of these negative comments on a sheet of paper with the date and day of the week. Post this record in a prominent spot where you will see it each day. The number you record will correspond to the more detailed record you kept earlier.

For the first couple of weeks, don’t do anything else. Just keep recording those numbers on your posted sheet. There’s no need to post the detailed record, but stay organized and keep those records together in a folder.

Don’t be surprised if the number of times you engage in self-critical behavior each day begins to drop. This is a nice side-effect of the recording procedure. For one thing, you are bringing your habit clearly into your conscious mind, which means you will more likely catch yourself about to take the blame for something and be able to resist doing so. You begin to announce, “Well I guess it’s my fault,” but say to yourself, “Wait a minute, I’m not responsible for this and I’m not taking the blame.” Just becoming aware of your action can help you be your own counselor!

Posting the record can also bring out your competitive juices. That is, as you approach the end of the day you realize that yesterday you had 8 episodes of self-blame, and today you’re only up to 6. You tell yourself, “If I manage to avoid another episode I can beat yesterday.” If you pull it off you will give yourself a tremendous reinforcement when you see the chart the next day.

One nasty thing about our undesirable habits is that we don’t monitor their occurrence. We have no idea how often we do something we would like to stop. Just becoming aware of the frequency of the action can lower the frequency. If it doesn’t happen for you, don’t sweat it. After a couple of weeks, you will at least know where you are, and you will have that baseline against which to evaluate any steps you take to decrease your habit.

A nice thing about the detailed supplementary notes coordinated to the chart is that you can begin to discern trends. You may notice that self-blame is more frequent in the presence of certain others, or in specific situations (such as in a meeting or when you’re tired). Keeping the record makes you aware of your actions and can help you get a handle on specific events, places, and people that are strongly associated with the actions.

Once you’re aware of them, you can reduce your exposure to them, plus be more on guard when you’re in those situations. Again, awareness is the key. Most of our bad habits take hold of us because we’re totally unaware of when and where we’re exercising the habit. Find those situations that bring on self-critical comments, and then you can take corrective action aimed at appropriate targets.

The next steps are up to you. Find techniques to reduce your self-blame tendencies that work for you. Remember that one size does not fit all. What worked for your neighbor or friend will not necessarily work for you. And keep up the chart because you will be able to evaluate precisely the effectiveness of any technique you try.

Above all, remember that you are changing your lifestyle. You’re not in this for a week or a month. You are literally modifying how you act in specific situations. It takes time, practice, perseverance, and patience. There is only one way to win this fight, and that is to treat it like warfare. You are the general in charge of your thoughts and actions, and failure is simply not an option. Will you win every battle? Of course not. You will always have slips and setbacks. Ultimately, however, they must not deter you from feeling that you are winning the war.

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