Self-esteem is the opinion we have of ourselves. This is different to self-confidence, which refers to our sense of being able to dosomething successfully. People with high self-esteem have confidence in themselves, can take reasonable risks, try new things that take them outside of their comfort zone without fear of failure and can maintain a positive attitude about themselves and others when faced with criticism.
When we have low self-esteem we may find that we have negative opinions about ourselves; this can lead to us saying negative things about ourselves or joking about our self in a negative way. It may also lead to high levels of self-criticism and blame. This negative self-talk is not only a result of low self-esteem but can also be one of the leading factors that lowers our sense of worth in the first place. This internal self-critical voice is often referred to as the inner critic and may:
- offer threats e.g., “If you don’t work hard enough you will lose your job”
- monitor weaknesses and mistakes e.g., “You messed this up again”
- make commands e.g., “You should stop acting like a fool”
- judge e.g., “You’re weak”
The function of the inner critic is to prevent us from making mistakes and to motivate us towards ideals, we could say that this internal voice is trying to keep us safe from harm and ensure that we live up to our expectations. It is not the function of the inner critic (i.e., evaluating behaviour) that is problematic, but the nature of the evaluation. The inner critic wants the best for us, however, it attempts to increase motivation in a hurtful and unproductive way that eventually affects our capacity to self-care and feel good.
Increasing awareness of self-criticism
Over-time self-criticism becomes automatic and consequently we become less aware of self-criticism and the impact it has on our daily lives. Becoming aware of how we treat ourselves during times of struggle, can start to disrupt this automatic cycle of self-punishment, negative feelings and self-neglect.
Action: Start by observing your thoughts; noticing the words, tone of voice and the impact of the inner critic. This allows for us to make choices in this moment rather than responding automatically.
Replace self-criticism with constructive feedback
Once we become aware of self-criticism we can begin to make changes. Self-criticism can be changed into constructive feedback by adopting a friendly, curious attitude.
Action: Replace critical and punitive words with those that reflect a desire to learn and grow, talk to yourself as you would someone you love.
Remember that the inner critic is trying to be helpful and is just a little misguided, rather than become angry and fight with this part of yourself attempt to befriend the inner critic. Thank the critic for its attempt to keep us safe, acknowledge its contribution and let it go replacing its message with a friendlier version.