A few weeks ago, I heard the Taylor Swift song “Mean” for the first time in a while. If you aren’t familiar with it, here are a few of the lyrics:
You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me,
You have knocked me off my feet again.
Got me feeling like a nothing…
As I listened, I thought to myself, “I’m glad I don’t have anyone in my life that’s that mean to me,” and then I realized, I do. My friends are all kind, considerate people, but there’s one mean voice I hear on a regular basis: My own.
Not only do I make all sorts of harsh judgments about myself, I seem to remember every mean thing anyone has ever said to me, and I replay their words over and over in my head. I also rethink awkward conversations and berate myself for saying stupid things or talking too much.
I struggle with depression, and when it’s bad, I feel like my inner critic has a megaphone. It shouts at me that I am a failure and that nobody will ever love me. It’s very convincing, because it knows the things I dislike most about myself, and it never hesitates to use them against me. I can’t let this internal bullying continue forever. If someone else were being this mean to me, I’d know how to handle it. I would stop spending time with that person, and disconnect from them on social media—but a negative inner voice is harder to escape.
One of the most common suggestions I’ve seen for coping with an inner critic is to give it a name and talk directly to it. I’ve come across this advice on several self-help websites, and a friend recently told me she had seen a recommendation to pretend your inner voice is Donald Trump so that you won’t take it seriously. That doesn’t work for me, and not just because I don’t want Trump in my head. My problem is that no matter what name I call it, I know that inner voice is my own. Instead of trying to pretend I have a little enemy living in my brain, here are the things that help me “Ssssssh” that negative voice, even if I can’t get rid of it completely.
1. I argue with my inner critic.
When my inner hater says mean things, I talk back to it (sometimes even out loud) the way I would respond to a friend if she were being too hard on herself. I tell myself things like, “You are a good person. You are doing the best you can.” My outer kind voice can be kind of cheesy, but for some reason, its positivity is strong enough to overpower the inner mean voice.
2. I refuse to have regrets.
Since I’m so good at replaying embarrassing situations in my head, I used to get caught up in endless loops where I regretted things I’d said and done in the past. Then, I made the decision to trust my earlier choices, knowing that they felt right to me at the time. Even if I really messed things up, I don’t let myself criticize the things I’ve done in the past. I focus on letting them go, and learning from them to make better, smarter decisions in the future.
3. I remind myself that everyone makes mistakes.
I know I’m not perfect (my inner critic is always reminding me), but I often need a reminder that nobody else is perfect either. Everyone screws up from time to time, whether it’s forgetting a family member’s birthday, or missing a meeting at work. If your inner voice comes down hard, remind yourself in a kind voice that it could happen to anyone. Sometimes things fall through the cracks, but the occasional brain fart doesn’t make you a bad person.
4. I take care of my physical self.
Self-care is a key weapon in the fight against inner demons. When I’m feeling hungry, tired, or out of shape, it’s easy for negative thoughts to take control. When I eat right, get plenty of sleep, and make time to exercise, I have more energy to defend myself against my mean inner voice. (I find intense aerobic exercise, like running or swimming, especially helpful.)
5. I take care of my mental health.
Our brains need self-care, too. When I’m stressed or anxious, thinking about my problems often makes me feel worse, but going over them with a close friend or my therapist helps. Talking things through helps give me a sense of perspective, and enables me to interrupt my inner critic when it starts considering the worst possible outcomes. (Antidepressants help, too, especially if you tend to get stuck in negative internal loops.)
6. I find ways to distract myself.
When my inner critic gets loud and the hateful messages seem constant, it’s a sign that I need to focus on something else—anything else. If my inner voice won’t shut up, I do whatever it takes to distract myself from it. I put on a silly movie or start an intense new novel, and let myself live in another world for a while. This is only a short-term solution, but having a brief break from my negative thoughts often gives me a better sense of perspective on them.
7. I remind myself that I deserve love.
(Fact: My inner critic just rolled its eyes.) I always find it challenging to be kind to myself, but it’s the most effective way I’ve found to quiet that negative, self-hating voice. I want to replace my inner critic with a friendly, encouraging voice, and I believe I can make that happen if I show myself enough compassion. “You can do this.” I’m saying it to myself, and I’m saying it to you. If we say it loud enough and often enough, our inner critic doesn’t have a chance.
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