The world you see is seen by you alone. You have your own unique set of thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and values that shape your world and guide you through life. While you may have a good understanding of how you interpret the world around you, have you ever paused to consider how you feel about yourself and the language you use to communicate with yourself?
When you pause and listen to how you think about yourself, you may notice patterns in this self-dialogue. Perhaps you tend to think negatively about your abilities, accomplishments, progress towards goals, or life in general. If this sounds familiar, you are certainly not alone. Our minds are prone to negativity bias – a fundamental principle studied by evolutionary psychologists that suggests people have instincts that make negative experiences seem more significant than they are. In other words: we have evolved to be our own worst critics and give more weight to our flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings than our successes.
But why are we so hard on ourselves? Evolution can explain. Our brains have been equipped with the ability to monitor thoughts and behavior so that when we make mistakes, we can notice them and prevent future mishaps from occurring. For example, if I put my hand in a fire and experienced a painful burn, I would have a negative association with fire + hand and remember never to do that again. You can see how this negativity bias would be beneficial to our species over time. In some instances, especially with concern to safety or morality, our brains must have the ability to decipher good from the bad, so we learn the right lessons from our experiences.
Unfortunately, assigning negative associations with our experiences and behaviors can trap us into unhealthy thought patterns. If you have ever laid in bed unable to sleep because you are mulling over the events of a past embarrassment or awkward interaction, you have dived into the dangerous, counterproductive territory of self-criticism. This negative thought cycle can impact our productivity, health, and self-esteem.
It does not have to be like this! We can work around our negativity bias and turn self-criticism into learning and personal growth opportunities by practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion involves being kind and understanding to ourselves when faced with a personal failure or shortcoming. Self-compassion means letting go of the mental clutter of negativity and taking productive action to move forward from a place of acceptance and clarity. Commit to valuing your happiness and thinking about yourself in a new, loving way. You are with yourself and your thoughts 100% of the time; why not make that time enjoyable?
Curious about more ways to practice self-compassion? Try practices like meditation that help you become more aware of the present moment. Notice how it feels to get swept up by a current of negative emotions. Compare those feelings with the ones experienced after being kind and understanding with yourself. Meet criticism with kindness. If your inner voice says, “You were so lazy and unproductive today,” respond with a healthy reminder: “You did the best you could today!” Make conscious efforts to notice differences between how you feel when consumed by negative self-talk versus demonstrating the ability to let it go. How much better might it feel to take a deep breath and say words of loving-kindness after a mistake instead of criticizing yourself? Make this awareness and positive self-talk a regular habit. Most importantly, remember that you are your own best friend and deserve your love and respect.
For more information, see HGIC 4376, Coping with Stress and Mental Health.
- Bergeisen, M. (2010). The neuroscience of happiness. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_neuroscience_of_happiness
- Florida, U. (2021). Counseling and psychological services. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://uwf.edu/academic-engagement-and-student-affairs/departments/counseling-and-psychological-services/self-help-library/self-help-topics/self-esteem/
- Kannan, Divya & Levitt, Heidi. (2013). A review of client self-criticism in psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. 23. 166. 10.1037/a0032355.
- Suttie, J. (2020, June). How to overcome your brain’s fixation on bad things. Retrieved February 1, 2021, from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_overcome_your_brains_fixation_on_bad_things