• Having impossibly high standards for yourself is a recipe for poor mental health

  • Dr Cate Howell, author of The Flourishing Woman, offers her seven tips for women with a strong inner critic

  • If this resonates with you, why not talk to a therapist? Find yours here

Many women, whether new mothers, older women, or women in the public eye, report low self-esteem. A major contributor is self-criticism, and we may in fact have a strong inner critic or critical voice in our mind that can generate a sense of powerlessness and can erode our self-belief. Let’s explore where this critical voice comes from and what we can do about it. 

Women are often trained by society to look after everyone else first, and to please others. Imagine that you are standing under an umbrella, and the umbrella contains the many influences in society, including family, media and the wider community. These influences shape our mind. As a result, for example, we may take on the view that to be worthy we must be attractive, smart, popular, successful, and more! 

We can also be conditioned to act in ways that ensure they are viewed as ‘nice’ or ‘good’. We may be shamed when we do something considered ‘not likeable’. Think about how female politicians have so often been humiliated based on their appearance. As a result of these influences, we may develop negative self-talk about not being good enough. 

Experiencing a lot of criticism growing up, bullying or intimidating behaviours in relationships or at work, can impact our view of ourselves. Having perfectionistic personality traits can also heighten negative self-talk. The self-critical voice that results can be mean or derogatory. It is characterised by thoughts such as, ‘I should have done better’ or ‘what is wrong with me?’ We may even talk about hating or loathing ourselves. 

We are also human and naturally compare ourselves to others. It is hardwired into the brain to help us survive, but our modern world has grown this tendency. A huge influence is social media where we see ‘perfect people’ living a ‘perfect life’. However, what we are seeing is just a snapshot of their lives. People present a story about themselves such as ‘I’m successful’ or ‘I’m beautiful’. Remember too, that when we compare, we despair! 

Self-criticism and low self-belief can affect our health and wellbeing, contributing to stress, anxiety, and low mood, and impacting sleep and eating habits, creating fatigue, and affecting our confidence. Let’s now consider seven keys to help silence that inner critic: 

1. Do some reframing

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours all influence each other. So, to feel more confident, we need to work on our thoughts and actions. To start with we need to be aware of self-critical thoughts.

Let’s take the example of; ‘I will never be good enough to get a promotion.’ We need to then challenge this thought by asking some questions:

  • Am I turning a thought into a fact? 
  • Am I being too harsh on myself? 
  • Would I say this to a friend? 

This helps us to reframe the thought into a more helpful one, such as ‘I am learning more about my job every day and I am on my way to a promotion.’

2. Get to know your stories

We understand the world and ourselves through stories. We have many stories about ourselves, and some are positive and others negative. Stories may be about our struggles, our work, or relationships. These have been developed under the influence of the umbrella that was mentioned earlier. 

When we are being pushed around by a self-critical story, it can seem as though all we are is the story. However, this is not the case. Recognising this can help us find a different perspective, and there will always be exceptions to these stories. We can start to build up an ‘alternate story’, which might include the times we got through a difficult situation or achieved something, no matter how small. 

3. Be mindful

Mindfulness involves paying attention on purpose, to experience the present moment, as opposed to being caught up in thoughts or feelings. It also means being non-judgmental about what we are experiencing. We can be mindful of our thoughts and feelings, rather than getting caught up with them. Through mindfulness we can learn that thoughts and feelings come and go and develop greater self-acceptance. 

4. Time to ACT

An approach called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) incorporates mindfulness, and other techniques. We have over 60,000 thoughts a day, and the problem is that we can become hooked by some thoughts (called ‘fusion’). Thoughts such as ‘I don’t have what it takes to succeed’ may create self-doubt and obstacles to achieving what we want. 

Another way of dealing with self-critical thoughts is ‘defusion’. It involves being mindful of the thoughts, stepping back from them and holding them more lightly. This takes the power out of the thoughts, so that we can then choose whether to pay attention to them or let them pass. It’s a bit like waiting at a bus stop for a bus, but we let buses go past that are not going to the destination we want to head to.

5. Grow your self-compassion

Developing greater self-compassion, or being kind and understanding towards ourselves, is vital to lessening self-criticism. It enables us to quit comparison and judgement, and to feel more comfortable being our authentic selves and accept that we are ‘enough’. It helps us to accept our humanness and choose kinder words in our thoughts. It is also soothing. For example, it feels good to breathe calmly and place our hands over our heart as a gesture of kindness and comfort towards ourselves. 

6. Tap into positive psychology

This approach focuses on human strengths and wellbeing. It encourages us to be familiar with our strengths and to use them more. Research indicates that if we know and use our abilities and strengths, we will feel happier and more confident. It can be useful to get to know your strengths and what you see as any ‘weaknesses’. We can then apply reframing to the weaknesses and focus on our strengths.

7. Try visualisation

To feel more confident, we might use visualisation before an interaction or event (just like an athlete does). To do this, make yourself comfortable, close your eyes and imagine the event occurring in positive way. 

A related technique is acting like the person you want to be. Tapping into a memory of a time associated with good feelings can also help, and even doing the opposite with our posture to how we feel helps. So, stand tall and smile!

Now that you have a few more keys to reduce self-criticism and grow your self-confidence, it is time for you to put them into practice and observe the changes in your life. 

Dr Cate Howell is the author of The Flourishing Woman

Further reading

Why do we have such complicated relationships with our breasts?

What do my female therapy clients have in common? Anger

5 things I've learned about self-care as a black woman

7 self-care tips to manage the intensity of being a new mother