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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Real health #25 How meditation can help you to change your mindset and your habits

We are long past the days where meditation is seen as something completely hippy or “out there”. Meditation and mindfulness are becoming every day terms understood and practiced by students, parents and business executives alike. We are starting to understand the impact of rushing through our lives in a half-conscious, distracted state is no good for our health and happiness and embracing meditation and mindfulness as tools to help us to become more present and aware. Yesterday I wrote about how to change your habits you first need to change your mind and today I want to explain how meditation can help you to create this mindset change.

Most of us spend our days operating from our conditioned mind. Our sub-conscious has a huge set of stored thoughts, beliefs, emotional responses and programmed actions that we play on repeat and these conditioned patterns define the way that we show up in the world and our identity. If we want to change our habits we have to consciously think different thoughts which enable us to feel differently create new pathways in the brain. But this can be hard to do when we are constantly bombarded with the familiar thoughts and feelings that tell us who we are. If we try to think differently, we will be greeted with a barrage of opposing thoughts and intense feelings because we have moved outside of our familiar comfort zone. This can make changing your thoughts very difficult!

How can meditation help you to get past this and change your mindset? Firstly, meditation helps you to become aware of your current habitual thought patterns. Yes all of those annoying intrusive thoughts when you are trying to meditate can actually be a good thing. Pay attention to them and you will see where your mind is probably wandering throughout the rest of your day too, without you even realising. Maybe you are distracted by things you should be doing instead or maybe you find yourself criticising yourself for not being able to empty your mind and meditate “properly”. Maybe your mind tells you that you can’t do it, you are uncomfortable or that you always fail. Whatever it is, take note! This is your first glance at your natural state of being from the point of view of an observer.

You can also use meditation as a way to practice disrupting these unhelpful thoughts and letting them go. When you aren’t paying attention, one thought can lead to another and before you know it you can spiral down the rabbit hole of negative thinking. Our thoughts affect the way we feel and those emotions then affect the way we think. We can easily become stuck in unhelpful loops of thoughts and emotions without noticing. Maybe you have a memory of being left out at school and the thought brings up emotions of sadness and loneliness. Those feelings then trigger other memories where you have felt alone and the feelings of isolation grow and become overwhelming. Over time of thinking these thoughts and feeling these feeling you can start to identify with the state of being as a lonely, unloveable person and this becomes your identity. Meditation offers you the opportunity to become aware of these patterns and break the chain.

When we have negative thoughts about ourselves, there is usually another voice present in our mind which knows better. For example, I’m sure many of you have experienced body image issues at some point in your life. That voice that tells you you are not beautiful enough or thin enough is probably loud at times but there is always that quiet voice underneath which says you are good enough as you are. Meditation slows down your thoughts and allows this alternative voice to have it’s say and become louder. In other words you are able to observe a thought and how it makes you feel then choose to think a different one. Of course you can do this through out your day but the focused attention state of meditation makes it much easier to observe your thoughts and engage your conscious mind.

How to start a meditation practice

There are many different meditation techniques but as usual I suggest to keep it simple if you are starting out. All you need is a quiet place, a comfortable place to sit and a timer. You can practice in your living room, on your bed, in your garden or out in nature. There are no rules, just find a place where you feel safe to relax.

  1. Set your timer for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes (tip set it on vibrate or on quiet so you aren’t jolted out of your practice)
  2. Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position or sit on a chair with your feet planted on the ground
  3. Close your eyes and start to become aware of your body sensations, noticing areas of comfort or pain, tension or tightness, hot or cold and the contact points between your body and the surface beneath you
  4. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice the sensations associated with the inhale and exhale, the rhythm and depth of your breath, whether you feel it deep in your belly or high in your chest
  5. Hold your attention on your breath. You can count your breaths if it helps you to concentrate or continue to focus on the sensations
  6. As thoughts arise, notice the emotions they trigger. Note whether they are helpful, unhelpful or neutral and then let them go. If you find yourself distracted, at the point you realise, let the thoughts go without judgement
  7. Continue like this until your time ends and then slowly open your eyes and start to bring movement back into your body
  8. Try to keep this relaxed, focused awareness with you as you go on with your day

With practice, meditation can also help you to access your sub-conscious mind and change your beliefs. I especially like combining meditation with affirmations by starting with a full body and mind relaxation and then listening to repeated phrases that reflect the new way I want to think. I have recommended them before but my absolute favourite guided meditations for changing your mindset are from The Mindful Movement. They have so many free videos on Youtube on all sorts of topics from healing your physical and emotional body, improving self-confidence to releasing fear and worry and letting go of the past. The video below is a great one if you are embarking on a new healthy lifestyle and trying to change your habits. Listen to the meditation before bed a few times a week and watch your confidence and belief in your ability to succeed soar!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts experiences with meditation, especially if it has improved your life and helped you to build healthier habits.

  • 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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power of the mind

Real health #24 To change your habits, first change your mind

Yesterday I shared about how taking consistent, simple actions can set you on the road to success when it comes to reaching your health goals. But we all know we are creatures of habit and often in the beginning behaviour change is hard! Our brains are designed in such a way that all of our past experiences shape who we are today. We wake up in the morning and after a split second all our familiar thoughts come flooding back. We realise who we are, where we are and our mind already has an idea of how the day will go. We get out of bed, have our familiar morning routine and get on with our day, mostly in autopilot.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually our brains’ way of making things easier for us. It allows us to go about our day without thinking too much, following the familiar path that we have created through our habits. But what happens when you want to change those habits and your life? If you want to act differently, you have to start to think differently first. In order to start eating healthier you have to let go of the image of you as an unhealthy person who hates vegetables and start to see yourself as the type of person who loves to nourish their body with good food. To become someone who enjoys exercise and keeping fit, you have to stop telling yourself that you are lazy, unfit and that you hate exercise. Or if you need to gain weight for your health you need to let go of the image of yourself as the skinny one or the fit one and start to embrace a new version of yourself that is more relaxed and free around food and exercise.

In short you want to create a new identity for yourself that aligns with the positive changes you want to make. You want to see yourself as the type of person who just does these things without even thinking about it, even if you aren’t there right now. We are all chattering away to ourselves most of the day without even realising it and these thoughts create our identity. To change this idea of yourself, start to think about the type of thoughts that your ideal self would have, then start telling yourself those things! I don’t mean just thinking them half-heartedly and deep down thinking otherwise but really feel and believe this as a possible reality and take actions based on those thoughts and feelings. It might feel unnatural at first but over time the nerve patterns in your brain will be hard wired and the new thoughts will become your default.

Whether you think of this as affirmations or you focus on the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy theory that the way you think affects the way you feel and the way you feel affects your actions, it’s the same idea that your thoughts become your reality. I have seen this play out in my own life with one of the biggest health challenges I have had – overcoming insomnia. The hardest thing was that after months of struggling with sleep, my brain was programmed to expect that I would sleep badly and wake up during the night. I would go to bed telling myself “I’m going to have such a good sleep” or “tonight I will sleep like a baby” but my sub-conscious mind didn’t believe it. Deep down I believed that things would be the same as always and that is how the same pattern ended up playing out for years!

I would also wake up in the morning and the first thought I would have would be about the time and how much sleep I got. I was so focused on my sleep that I let the amount of sleep I got dictate my energy levels and mood. The interesting thing was that during a period of letting go of obsessing about my sleep, I realised that some days I slept well and still felt exhausted whereas other days I slept less and actually felt more energised. I started to tell myself that my sleep quality and my happiness were two seperate things. Once I let go of the expectation, this gave me permission to be happy even when I slept badly and I actually started to feel better (and over time sleep better too!). Implementing this fully is a work in progress for me but it was mind blowing. And the same thing can be applied to other changes you want to make in your life too.

If you already predict the outcome that you won’t like healthy food or that you will fail at exercise then this is most likely what you are going to see happen for you. Instead, try giving yourself the chance to explore and genuinely see how you feel. Let yourself imagine the possibility that you will enjoy these things and be successful! If you’re interested in learning more about how to change your mindset and build habits I definitely recommend reading Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Joe Dispenza and The Power of Habit by Charles DuHigg. If you are wondering HOW you can possibly change your thoughts and start to access your sub-conscious mind, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post where I will be sharing how meditation can help you to change your thoughts as well as how to start a meditation practice.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on changing your mindset to reach your health goals.

  • 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!

Other posts you might like

self-sabotage and health

Real health #6 Why you self-sabotage your health and how to stop

Ever wondered why you just can’t seem to that new diet, exercise regime or self-care plan? Have you set yourself hundreds of goals for your health and just when you seem to be on the right track you fall off the wagon or do something to mess it up? Do you find yourself falling into the same patterns of destructive behaviour again and again? This is called self-sabotage and it might just be the thing that is getting in the way of you reaching your health goals.

Self-sabotaging patterns include procrastination from healthy habits or or any form of addictive behaviour such as binge eating, substance abuse or over-using social media. It is defined as behaviour that deliberately causes you harm and gets in the way of you reaching your long term goals i.e. preventing you from becoming the person you want to be. I say deliberate meaning that the behaviours are often things you know aren’t good for you but often the thoughts that drive self-sabotage are unconscious meaning we aren’t even aware that we are having them. All we know is that one minute we were enthusiastic and motivated to reach our goals and the next we have given up and are back to square one.

self-sabotage and health
Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

Why do we self-sabotage?

Psychology research says that self-sabotage is a pretty common phenomenon. We all have that critical inner voice that develops during our childhood and for some this voice is harsher and louder than for others. The voice might say that you are lazy, that you are unworthy of success or that you’ll never reach your goals so you might as well give up. Whatever it is for you, we all have a dark, destructive aspect of our psyche that just wants to destroy things, labelled by Freud as the “death drive”. It is that part of us that doesn’t seem to want happiness and seeks to disrupt anything that seems good. You might be thinking why would I ever destroy my own health and happiness?! But so many of us do it.. think of all the times you have stopped doing something that made you feel great or carried on with bad habits that you know don’t make you feel your best.

As humans we like the familiar, things that we know and understand. Our brains are wired to think and act in a certain way in the world. Our neural connections get stronger with repetition like thousands of hikers walking the same pathway across a field until a deep muddy path forms. So when we want to change our habits and develop ourselves, it takes work to form a new pathway! When we start out, it’s very easy to fall back into the groove of our old ways. Most of our actions during the day are done on auto-pilot without us even thinking about it. It takes much more energy to make decisions about our behaviour and take conscious action and our brains are energy conserving machines. So it’s totally understandable that we will slip up more than once when we are trying to change our behaviour.

I recently watched a video by Irene Lyons, a nervous system expert, who explains that procrastination, self-sabotage and “fleeing from health” (i.e. repeating the same unhealthy behaviours again and again) is even more common in those who have had a traumatic or stressful childhood. Because this feeling of stress or lack of safety has become a normal state of mind, anything else feels alien and the unconscious mind acts quickly to disrupt things. She says that the origin of self-sabotage is stored trauma or trapped survival stress in the body which needs to be processed and released.

How to eliminate self-sabotage and reach your health goals

I don’t think it’s possible to fully eliminate self-sabotage. We aren’t robots and we can’t expect ourselves to behave logically and rationally 24/7 according to the rules we set for ourselves. But there are ways we can try to minimise self-sabotage and make it easier for us to work towards our goals.

1. Have self-awareness. Being aware of your destructive thought patterns and self-sabotaging behaviour is the first step to overcoming them. Depending on how severe a problem this is for you, you might need the support of a therapist. But you can always start by spending some time in silence and solitude each day, without the distraction of technology, to tune into your inner world. Listen to the repetitive thoughts and observe the feelings that come up and reflect on how these could be contributing to your self-sabotaging behaviour.

2. Start small. Rather than setting yourself a massive goal to go from couch to marathon in 6 months, try setting smaller more manageable goals. If there is a huge gap between your current self and your goal, it can feel intimidating and overwhelming and you are much more likely to give up and sabotage any progress you have made. It’s better to focus on the actions rather than the end goal i.e. “meditate for 5 minutes a day” rather than “be able to meditate for an hour” and over time gradually increase the time that you practice. Make your goals achievable so that you can be boosted by your success rather than falling into patterns of critisising yourself for not reaching the high standards you have set for yourself.

3. Plan for failure. Once we accept that self-sabotage is a normal part of behaviour change, we can start to plan for those occasions when we are likely to fall into the unconscious self destruct trap. Think of this as the “if, then” approach. You can think of situations which are likely to trip you up or common scenarios that occur when you are trying to create healthy habits. For example, if I binge eat at night then the next morning I will have a healthy breakfast and go for a walk. If I forget my running shoes for my lunchtime jog, I will go for a walk instead. If I skip my morning yoga and meditation practice I will have a gentle stretch before bed instead. Or if I had a stressful day at work and I want to have a takeaway on the way home, I will go for a healthier option like rice and veggies rather than fish and chips or a whole pizza.

4. Have self-compassion. This goes along with planning for failure, by learning to expect ourselves to fall back into old behaviours rather than expecting ourselves to be perfect. When slip ups inevitably do happen we can learn to show ourselves kindness and understanding rather than beating ourselves up over it. This way we can avoid the inner critic running the show and keeping us stuck in negative thought loops and self-sabotaging behaviour. We can see self-sabotage as a normal part of the process and see it as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the funny ways our brains work.

5. Relax into health. Stress and living in an anxious, fear based mindset is going to make you more likely to sabotage yourself and fall into unhealthy coping mechanisms. This includes stress from putting pressure on yourself to take certain actions or reach your goals. To reduce self-sabotage, it’s important to try to relax and allow your nervous system to move out of flight or flight mode. This could be through a dedicated meditation practice or by simply taking breaks during the day to focus on your breath and consciously relax tension that has built up in your body. The key is to not make relaxation another task that you have to do but by focusing on the relaxed inner state that you want to feel.

Your challenge for today is to take a few moments to reflect your own behaviours and whether self sabotage is a common pattern for you whenever you are trying to improve your health and maybe you can identify any repetitive thoughts and feelings that could at the root of your self-sabotage.

OVER TO YOU…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your experience with self-sabotage and your tips for dealing with it.

  • 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 nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

Other posts you might like