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!

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Learning to listen – intuitive yoga

It was my 26th birthday yesterday and unfortunately I was pretty unwell. I had felt myself coming down with a cold over the weekend and the last couple of days I have been pretty much stuck in bed all day with a box of tissues and hot cups of tea. I’ve been craving extra time in bed for weeks but this isn’t exactly what I had in mind!

I knew this month would be tough as I decided to do a yoga teacher training course alongside my full time job and my nutrition degree. But it was my decision as I didn’t feel ready to take a huge risk and quit my job and I do still think it was the right one. Getting sick did give me time to reflect and I realised that I have been pushing myself so much the last few weeks it’s no wonder that my body isn’t on top form. It’s like that with anything, you can use will power and motivation to say no to your body’s needs for a while but eventually it will fight back. It is exactly the same as dieting. When I did crazy restrictive diets in the past I would squash down my hunger and cravings for days, weeks or even months at a time but inevitably the drive to eat would take over and I would empty the cupboards.

My friend Angela, who is a colon hydro-therapist, talks about this as saying “no not now” to your body. It has become a habit to ignore our bodies’ signals whether it be hunger, tiredness or going to the bathroom. I went through a phase of getting recurring UTIs and the nurse told me that it’s pretty common in women because we often delay peeing when we are in the middle of something. Angela said a similar thing, that many people are constipated because they ignore the urge to go to the toilet because when we are busy or because of embarrassment in a public place.

I think it’s pretty common to be living in our heads and neglecting our bodies. One amazing benefit I have found from practicing yoga is that it brings my attention down into my body. In my physical asana practice my focus is on the alignment of my body in the poses or finding stillness and balance. I feel like I am much better at listening to my body, knowing where my strengths and limitations lie. I sometimes get frustrated that I seem to be getting ill more often since I started to transition to a healthier lifestyle but actually I think I am just becoming more aware of issues that were already there but under the surface. Even though it is annoying in the moment I think learning to listen to your body and adjust your actions is a pathway to long term health.

So here are some photos from my practice this weekend. I have really been working on foundation poses for the last couple of years as a sort of rehab for my body after illness and injury. Now I am slowly starting to move forward with my practice and get some flexibility back. It’s disheartening at times when things I used to do easily seem so far away for me now but I am seeing improvements and getting stronger so I am really happy and proud of myself! As you can see I am incorporating lots of props into my practice – yoga blocks and straps are a great way to challenge yourself and improve whilst staying in tune with your body as it is in the present moment.

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