Real health #28 How self-criticism can destroy your health and what to do about it

We’ve all been there.. one day we are feeling strong and confident and the next it is like the rug has been pulled from underneath our feet. Your inner critic goes beserk, bringing up all the reasons why you should dislike yourself, bringing up past mistakes and failures and highlighting all of your “imperfections”. For women, we are especially vulnerable to this out of control inner critic during our pre-menstrual phase as our emotional sensitivity is heightened. Yesterday was day 29 of my cycle and my inner critic hit me hard. I had a total meltdown and felt awful about myself all morning. Luckily I’ve been through this many times before and now I have ways to deal with it which I want to share with you in this article.

This experience got me thinking about just how destructive excessive self-criticism can be for our health. Our thoughts generate emotions which are felt by all of the cells in our body. Berating ourselves causes distressing feelings of sadness, unworthiness, guilt or shame which all send out chemical stress signals throughout our bodies causing all sorts of mayhem. Those feelings then trigger more destructive thoughts and the cycle continues. It could be thoughts about the way you look, your knowledge and abilities or even about your personality. Whatever it is, the inner critic can be a real bully and if we don’t get it under control it can really affect our mental and physical health.

Chronic stress, like that caused by self-criticism, is one of the worse things for our health as it leaves us stuck in fight or flight mode, unable to fully relax and let go which is when true restoration and healing takes place. Imagine living with a real-life tyrant who was constantly following you round pointing out all of your flaws and errors. You’d want to escape from that situation pretty fast right? But so many of us let the judge inside our head take over and dominate our thoughts. Being trapped in this cycle of negative self-talk and the stressful emotions that follow can prevent us from healing and even cause more damage to our bodies.

Stress affects how we digest food and assimilate nutrients, our blood sugar and blood pressure management, our hormonal balance, the health of our immune system and our ability to sleep well. So if we want to be truly healthy we have to learn how to keep our inner critic in check.

How to tame your inner critic

I’m not a psychologist, but as someone who has struggled with self criticism for most of my life, I want to share the things that help me the most to pull myself out of the hole of self-destruction whenever I get sucked in. If you have been following this blog series, you will know that journaling is my number one tool in my self-care kit. Journaling can improve your health in so many ways by helping you to uncover thoughts and beliefs that are keeping you trapped. When it comes to overcoming self-criticism, two journaling techniques I like to use are “thought replacement” and “mind-mapping”.

Thought replacement is exactly what it says on the tin… replacing critical thoughts. For 24 hours, keep your journal with you and whenever you notice yourself having a self-critical thought, write it down leaving a few lines space underneath each entry. At the end of the day, sit down with your journal in a cosy space. Set the mood by lighting a candle or incense and playing some relaxing, uplifting music. Centre yourself by closing your eyes and taking a few long, deep slow breaths. Then open your journal and read what you have written. You might be shocked by how mean you have been to yourself! Next go through each critical thought one by one, cross it out and lovingly write a new thought underneath.

This could be the opposite of the critical thought, for example:

“I am lazy and stupid” could be replaced by “I am a smart and motivated person when I want to be”

Or it could be a way that this thing could benefit you, such as:

“I am too quiet and reserved, I wish I was more outgoing” could be replaced by “I am a naturally introverted person, I am thoughtful and I am a good listener”

This isn’t a magic trick, it doesn’t mean that all of your critical thoughts will go away over night. But it does help to give you a new perspective and to see things in a different light. You can repeat this whenever you feel like your inner critic is getting out of control and come back and read your thought replacements as much as you need to.

The second journalling technique that helps me to manage my inner critic is mind-mapping. Specifically mind-mapping about my identity. Start with a blank page in your journal and write your name in big letters or the phrase “WHO AM I?”. Then start to free-associate whatever comes to your mind about your personality, your values in life, things you are good at etc. You can write negative things on there too but make sure they are balanced by positive things that you do like about yourself. You aren’t trying to create a false, perfect image of yourself here but the aim is to be realistic and allow yourself to have a more holistic view of who you are.

No one is perfect and it’s ok to acknowledge the things that you don’t like or want to improve about yourself, that’s an important step to growing and developing as a person, but if you have been beating yourself up for a long time it’s time to change your program. If you get stuck you can ask your friends and family for their input. I also really love online personality tests and find them really helpful for this technique. The 16 personalities test is the most interesting and accurate one I have found. I’m not saying that an algorithm can say more about you than you know about yourself but it can provide you with some insight into your character based on your responses and help you to see what your strengths and weaknesses might be if you can’t see them for yourself.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of thing fascinating! I spent hours reading over the different personalities and doing the test with all of my family and friends. It was actually really helpful for me to read the profile of some of the people I looked up to and see their weaknesses as well as their strengths. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one personality type is “better” and wishing that you were different but in reality we all have positives and negatives and have our own path to follow in life. Often when we feel bad about ourselves it’s because we are being inauthentic by trying to be something that we are not.

In the past I felt out of alignment when I worked in the chemical industry because I felt like I was going against my core values and morals. Taking a career turn to work in environmental protection felt much more like me and there was less tension inside of me. To feel happy I need to feel like I have a purpose and I am working towards a cause. I’ve been told in the past that I get “obsessed with things” which I thought was a negative thing but in reality I am just passionate about the things I care about and that interest me. And funnily enough, the advocate personality is also supposed to be well suited to writing and to careers in counselling and holistic health which explains why I am now being called to this work in helping others improve their health!

So if you feel called to, take the test and reflect on your results. Maybe it won’t resonate with you but there will be at least a few gems that you can take. Try out the thought replacement and mind-mapping techniques whenever you have some free time. Like I say, these techniques won’t transport you from hating yourself to loving yourself overnight but they will help you to take small steps along the road of self-acceptance and help you to develop an “inner cheerleader” that can stand up for you when your inner critic gets loud. I think changing your inner dialogue is one of the best things you can do for your health. So if you’re feeling stuck and like you aren’t progressing towards your health goals, despite having a healthy lifestyle, definitely spend some time becoming aware of how you speak to yourself and maybe try out these tips.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and your 16 personalities result if you take the test!

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again!

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benefits of journaling for mental health

Real health #10 The benefits of journaling for mental health

Yesterday I ordered a pack of 6 of my favourite A5 bound notebooks that I use to write my journal and it got me thinking about the benefits of journaling for mental health. I have been journaling on and off for over 10 years and in the last 3 it has become part of my routine that I can’t do without. My journal is like my therapist, friend, co-worker, spiritual guide all in one. I use my journal to keep track of the highs and lows of my life, to work through struggles with my work, relationships, family or inner life and to dig deep into what is under the surface of my conscious thoughts. My journal is there when there are things on my mind that I can’t say out loud to anyone and it is there when I don’t even know what is on my mind. Journaling is what finally helped me to overcome disordered eating and move on with my life.

Some of the benefits of journaling for mental health include better processing of difficult emotions, management of stress and anxiety, increased clarity and direction for your life and cultivating gratitude, mindfulness and present awareness. I’d recommend to anyone to start a journal, even if you think your life is boring or you have nothing to write. Trust me there is always something! Don’t let the fact that you “aren’t good” at writing stop you from starting a journal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nor does it have to be interesting to anyone but yourself or even be legible. Just the act of getting things down on paper can be extremely therapeutic, even if you never look at it again or decide to rip it up or burn it afterwards as a sign of letting go.

Journaling techniques for mental health

There are many journaling techniques you can use if you’re not sure where to start. In her book Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth, therapist and author Kathleen Adams describes ways to use a journal to work through past and present relationship issues, find your creative expression and get to know yourself on a deeper level. Some of the techniques she includes are:

  • Stepping stones (journaling prompts)
  • Dialogues (with people, situations, feelings)
  • Captured moments (descriptive writing)
  • Free association (mind mapping and lists)
  • Stream of consciousness (letting your unconscious speak)

You can experiment with different ways of using your journal depending on the outcome that you want. If you want to record the moments of your life, maybe a big travelling adventure, your child growing up or a special occasion you want to remember, you can use captured moments to engage with the present moment and capture everything you feel with all of your senses. Writing in this way helps you to be present and mindful and to let your creativity flow. If you’re feeling stuck in some area of your life, you can use free association techniques such as mind mapping or list making to get creative and seek innovative solutions. Or if you are feeling numb and disconnected, you can use stream of consciousness writing and see what comes up.

Written dialogues can help you to see the perspective of someone you are currently in, or have previously had conflict with or to see the positives in what seems like a dire situation. Journaling dialogues are a good way to process and let go of past hurts, even with people who are no longer in your life. The technique that has helped me the most is stepping stones or journaling prompts. Sometimes all it takes is for you to ask to right question for you to find the solutions you are looking for. Journaling about my disordered eating patterns led me down the path of asking questions about my self-worth, my values in life and discovering hidden shame, anger, disappointment and fear that were underlying my behaviours.

Journaling also helped me to understand why I was struggling with insomnia. Using the mind mapping technique was a way to uncover some underlying worries and situations which were affecting my sleep. Some of the things that came up were obvious such as work stress, drinking coffee and feeling physically uncomfortable but through this journaling technique I also had some realisations that I hadn’t thought of before including being stuck in the victim mentality, worrying about not being productive if I didn’t get enough sleep, comparing myself to others and getting jealous of their ability to sleep (any fellow insomniacs will understand this one!) and suppressing my anger. Understanding these things helped me to overcome my insomnia and start to finally recover my energy levels.

How to start journaling for mental health

Starting a journal practice is easy because there are no rules! All you need is a notepad and pen of choice, some spare time and the motivation to explore. You can choose a dated journal or a blank notebook, lined or plain paper, pocket sized or A4. You can write in ballpoint pen, coloured pencils, fountain pen and ink or a mix of them all. You can write in prose, bullet points, poetry and add doodles and sketches to the page if you feel like it. You don’t need to worry about writing neatly, spelling correctly or perfect grammar. In fact, the less you censor yourself the better when it comes to journaling. Just sit down, set an intention for your journal session, choose a technique and write until you don’t feel like writing anymore. This can be five minutes or an hour. You can include journaling in your daily routine or you can write when the mood strikes. Really it is up to you to find whatever feels good and feels like you.

Some days you might feel stuck or just a few words and others you might write pages and pages with the words seeming to flow out from nowhere. Whatever happens, try not to judge yourself and just let the process unfold. You can create an atmosphere by clearing out your writing space, maybe lighting a candle or playing some music to set the mood. Start by closing your eyes and taking a few slow, deep breaths to centre yourself and focus your attention on your intention, whether that is to explore a certain topic, vent out some trapped emotion or to reflect on the day. Start to write and if you get stuck, try taking a break to read back what you have written and take a few more deep breaths. Once your journaling session feels complete, close your notepad and store it somewhere safe. Having a ritual with a clear start and end gives your journaling practice that touch of magic and mystery that we all need a bit of in our lives these days.

Your challenge for day 10 is to think about how you could include journaling into your routine and maybe get yourself a journal and start your own practice.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed these quick tips on the benefits of journaling for mental health and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how to have fun on your journey to health.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

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