Many of us have struggled at points in our lives to like ourselves. This can range from feeling dissatisfied with who we are and wanting to change to, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, wondering if we even deserve to exist. In this short article, I am going to explore how these feelings come about, and also, look at some things that can help with them.
Feelings about not liking yourself usually have something to do with a part of your mind called the inner critic. Every single person on earth, it seems, has this part of their mind. The inner critic is the part of you that is constantly reviewing your life, a bit like a critic reviews a movie. And it is always giving a bad review. ‘How could you talk to your partner like that?’ it will say ‘you’re just a bad person’. Or ‘What? Get up and dance? Stop it now! You’re making an idiot of yourself’. Of course, there are many other ways it talks. It can be angry aggressive, sweary, or alternatively almost present itself as a friend offering ‘helpful advice’. However, you will always know when this part of you is talking– it will always make you feel embarrassed and ashamed.
Of course, the inner critic is not always a bad thing to have around – if it genuinely does stop you doing something terrible, for example. The problem, though, is that this inner voice can sometimes get way out of hand; and, if you have got to the point where you feel that you really don’t like yourself, there is a very strong chance this has happened.
The roots of the inner critic go way back into childhood. In fact, some people find that if they ask themselves ‘who does my inner critic remind me of?’ – they will remember someone – a father, mother, sibling or teacher perhaps, who spoke to them in exactly the same way. Many people think that the inner critic develops to protect us from feeling ashamed in front of these important childhood figures. Feeling ashamed is a very powerful emotion for a human being. If another person makes us feel ashamed it makes us feel disgusting, worthless, unwelcome. When we are children, we rely completely on the adults around us to feed us, clothe us, to keep us safe and warm. So it is likely we are genetically programmed to be terrified of feeling shamed – if other people don’t want us around, if we are unwelcome, we will literally die! And this is where the inner critic comes in to help us. If we shame ourselves – if we tell ourselves not to do the thing we know an important other person doesn’t want us to do – we can protect ourselves from the horrible feeling of not being wanted by them.
It is this protective role of the inner critic I think, that can make it so hard to shift. From the inner critic’s point of view, if it stops nagging and haranguing us, it is exposing us to a greater danger – being shamed by others. The inner critic does not realise you have grown up, and don’t need so much protection anymore!
A second reason it can be really hard to like yourself is that, if the inner critic gets really strong, it can make you feel unloveable. It then gets really difficult to let another person’s care in, because, paradoxically, there is then such a deep longing for it. If it really feels like no-one could even like you, let alone love you, there can be a tremendous longing for even a little sign of another person’s affection; but, if you let a little bit of that caring in, how bad would it feel of that got snatched away again? That would be so upsetting and feel so scary, that it again becomes easier to trust the inner critic’s message that you are unloveable. At least you know where you are. It keeps you safe from getting hurt even more. As well as the critic’s protective role against shame, this is another reason why it is so hard to move out of iitsgrasp. It makes love really scary, and that makes believing that we might be o.k., we might be worthy of love really scary too.
So, if we all have this voice, and if it can get so out of control that we feel that we can’t like ourselves and that no one can like us, what can we do about it? Well, I am not going to pretend that changing this is easy; but it is very definitely possible. Below are some things that can help:
- Psychotherapy can be really helpful. Often just being open about how we are feeling in front of a non-judgemental other can be really healing. Being present with another who hears the most difficult things we have felt and experienced, and who is not repelled, but instead, understanding and curious, is hugely powerful in ways that cannot be imagined till they are experienced. In addition to this, a psychotherapist can help us look at where the inner critic comes from, and explore whether its demands are reasonable. Often, when we see the critic clearly enough, the threat and menace it possesses fall apart. Have you seen the bit at the end of the Wizard of Oz (spoiler alert!), where it becomes apparent the ‘great and powerful wizard’ is just an ordinary man? Well, it is a bit like that.
- Group psychotherapy is also really good for the inner critic. It is surprising how often in a group it turns out many other people have felt and acted as we have – and that can be a surprisingly huge relief.
- When you are feeling really bad about yourself, ask yourself how you would talk to a good friend about the same issue? Would you be so harsh? Can you manage to talk to yourself in the same way you would talk to a good friend?
- Actively notice the good things you do; if you have difficulty acknowledging they are good, ask yourself why it could be important to you, not to see the good things? Could it feel scary, to see the good in yourself?
- You could try spending 5 or 10 minutes every day sitting still (you may want to rest your hand gently on your chest as you do this) saying ‘may I be happy, may I be well. May I flourish and thrive’. You could try and imagine what a deeply happy, satisfying life would look like as you say these words. This is practising well-wishing instead of inner criticism. If you are in a generous mood, you could wish the same for people around you too as that often feels great! Just practice a mood of generosity to yourself, and see if that softens the critical voice.
I hope some of the above suggestions help. There are actually loads of others out there to find if you search them out. If the issues in this article resonate with you, I am confident that there will be a way for you to reduce the severity of that critical voice. And I would invite you, as we reach the end of this article, to notice at this point if there is a voice saying – ‘this is hopeless, I can never get any better’ – is that voice really telling you the truth? Or could it be that, having seen you take the pro-active step of reading an article like this your inner critic is scared you won’t let it keep on ‘protecting you’? Perhaps it already sees it’s days in charge of your life are numbered…