If You Talked to Me Like I Talk to Me,
I Wouldn’t be Your Friend

Question: I’m often angry with myself.  I fail to live up to my expectations.

Man criticizing himself harshly

In many from abusive backgrounds, self-criticism reaches debilitating levels of self-abuse.

Answer: Did you have highly critical parents or older siblings?  Was there a lot of chaos, power-struggling, neglect, or abuse in your family when you were growing up?  All children instinctively assume that such turmoil and pain was their fault.  You probably thought, “if I can only be a better child, Mommy and Daddy will give me the love I need and then I’ll feel safe.”

If a child’s physical and emotional needs are not being met, she/he has few options.  She can try, with her limited brainpower and minimal life experience, to figure out what would make those around her meet her needs better.  Sometimes this works.  A child who smiles brightly and makes eye contact may influence her Mother to embrace her and bond better with her.  To try to change to make things better makes sense.

However, in a family that is codependent or where addiction is present, the child’s best efforts won’t work, through no fault of their own.

If that was your experience, you couldn’t have had the perspective to think, “It’s nothing personal.  My parents are just troubled and emotionally immature. They just don’t know how to take care of me properly.  It’s not my fault.”

Instead, you just kept trying to do better and you felt unlovable and a failure when that didn’t work.  You still felt that if you could only figure out what was wrong with you and how to change it, then you could fix it.  And you learned to criticize yourself harshly for your failings.  Maybe you thought that if you criticized or even hated yourself first, you wouldn’t feel so hurt by others’ criticism or hatred.

Once this pattern of self-criticism gets started, it tends to stick around, and it tends to go unconscious. You hardly hear the way you talk to yourself anymore.  But you sure do feel the effects.  You feel it in your emotions and your body just as if someone outside you said those mean things to you.  But in that case, at least you’d know who said it and you could choose to walk away.  When the “voice” is inside you, you tend to accept it as true without question and you think you’re stuck with it.

You’re not stuck with this mean, self-hating voice

A lot of different things can help, like meditation, and consciously treating yourself more kindly, etc.  But if I were to give you one most promising short cut, it would be the following exercise, from a mentor of mine, Tom Crockett (Tom Crockett’s website).

The Heart Touch

Every time someone compliments or praises you or acknowledges you in any way, even with a mere nod, “hello”, or politeness, you must touch your heart and say “Thank you.” You cannot apologize or deflect the praise or reject it in any way. You must accept it for what it is with a touch to your heart.  Touching the heart is a physical gesture or reminder to get out of your head.  Accepting the praise is breaking the habit of being un-praiseworthy.  To make it most effective, you must pause to feel yourself each time.  Take a breath.  Allow the praise or acknowledgment into you.

Remember that your tendency to talk unkindly or impatiently to yourself has gone on for many years.  It won’t cease quickly, but an exercise like this can definitely begin to make a difference.  Make it a practice indefinitely.  If you’d like to explore further, I recommend Cheri Huber’s book There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate

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Your comments, questions, and stories are welcome below. I will respond.

Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release unresolved trauma. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at www.releasingthepast.com.

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    • Thank you for this excellent blog post. I am sure many of the clients at the Courage to Change Ranch may benefit.

    • Great post. A tragic issue that gets swept under the rug into unconsciousness.

      • Anonymous

        Joe, I’m glad it spoke to you. Paul