Managing Self-Criticism: The Internal Monologue

Do you ever find yourself noticing a little voice in your head that says things like:

I should be exercising more.

Or

I should cook more.

Maybe these ones sound familiar:

I should probably be earning more by now.

I should save more money instead of spending it all on travel.

 I should buy a house.

 I should have taken that gap year.

 I should be able to hold a downward dog without wanting to frigging DIE.

 I should set more time aside for relaxation.

Sound familiar? Speaking to yourself this way, even on an unconscious level, doesn’t make you crazy – it makes you human. We all have our own ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ and often they can start to really get the better of us. Lately my negative self-talk has been more prominent than I would like, so I thought I’d share my experience.

About four months ago there were a couple of relatively major changes in my life – I relocated to a new city, and I completed my yoga teacher training. These experiences share common characteristics. Both can be exciting and uplifting, bringing new opportunities, new surroundings, and a chance to re-imagine your life and the way you live it. However, I also found (not uncommonly) that moving somewhere new and undertaking a YTT can each bring feelings of self-doubt and self-worth to the surface. I am naturally quite a motivated person and I thrive on setting goals for myself, and taking steps to achieve them. This has a potentially negative flip-side where I set the bar so high for myself that it’s very easy to fall short of my own astronomical expectations. Working in a self-regulated business environment like the health and wellness industry or the performing arts can increase this propensity for self-criticism – there might not be an external employer or permanent colleagues to regulate our expectations of our own achievements.  

So, what can we do about this? As a wise person once said to me, “If somebody spoke to you the same way you speak to yourself, do you know what you’d call them? A bully!” Rather than bully ourselves, we can cultivate an internal monologue focused on positive language and compassionate self-talk. For example, imagine yourself in a yoga class on a Thursday evening. It’s been a long week, you’ve felt a little undermined at work, and you’re feeling like you’re not much chop at anything. Throughout the whole class you just feel off your game, literally falling out of balancing poses, struggling to connect to your breath, and you start to feel incredibly overcome and frustrated.

I’m not improving at all. I don’t know why I bother to come to these classes.

 Instead of allowing yourself to slip into negative self-talk, try encouraging yourself. Imagine the things that your favourite teacher or best friend would say to you if they saw you having a tough day in class or at work.

You’re doing great!

Just keep breathing.

You’re so much stronger than you think you are.

 This might sound lame, but it’s a lot better than the alternative. After all, if your mind is going to be busy with a million thoughts, you may as well make them nice to listen to, right? And after a while, this positive reinforcement and self-encouragement will actually become the norm. This doesn’t stop at what you’re thinking on the inside, either – writing down positive affirmations and the start and/or end of each day is proven to benefit mental health, improve self-confidence and actually assist us in reaching our goals.

In yoga we learn about the yamas and niyamas – ettiqual rules of thumb for how we interact with the world around us, and how we interact with ourselves. For me, one of the things that I will continue to work on throughout my practice is the balance between the niyama tapas (internal ‘fire’ or self-discipline) and the yama ahimsa (compassion). In the ashtanga vinyasa yoga tradition, we dedicate ourselves to a rigorous practice in which determination, focus and self-discipline help to cultivate self-awareness and ultimately peace within and without. However, we must temper these aspects of our practice with compassion towards ourselves, both on and off the mat. The next time you catch yourself thinking ‘I should….’, just stop and notice your self-talk. Do you like what you hear? Does it make you feel good? If it doesn’t, go ahead and change it. Be your own cheerleader – life gives us enough challenges without having to constantly defend yourself against your own negative thoughts too.

Namaste yogis, enjoy your practice!