Everyone wrestles with their inner critic at some point. Sometimes it will show up at work, such as when you face a new challenge or deal with a difficult situation. Other times, you may struggle with harsh self-criticism with issues ranging from body image to parenting or dealing with close relationships.
It is normal to confuse the critic with realistic thinking and accept the points as valid. Unchecked, this can lead to beliefs that limit your potential and close off opportunities. This inner voice masquerades as humility or reasonable self-doubt but is an insidious form of self-sabotage. Identifying what lies behind self-critical thoughts is essential to shift your perspective into a more self-compassionate and nurturing frame of mind.
This article looks at what you can do to face down unhelpful self-criticism and quell self-doubt. You might like to try the suggested exercise set out below. Known as the ABCDE method, it can enable you to reframe negative thoughts and replace them with something more useful.
Understanding your inner critic
Critical self-talk manifests the human safety instinct, driven by the natural desire to avoid potential risk or harm. It is no surprise that your inner critic can surface when facing change or fresh opportunities that bring new levels of visibility, such as taking on a more significant role at work or starting a new personal relationship.
Undermining self-talk is often louder when you have experienced a setback or feel overwhelmed by workload or personal responsibilities. It is annoying and frustrating, especially when the inner chatter compares you unfavourably with others and exaggerates your weaknesses.
Our continued dwelling on how we are not as we would like to be just makes us feel worse, taking us even further from our desired goal. This, in turn, only serves to confirm our view that we are not the kind of person we feel we need to be in order to be happy. Zindel V. Segal, Professor of Psychology, University of Toronto
It need not be this way. You can learn techniques to banish your inner critic and replace it with the voice of a supportive inner mentor. It takes effort and practice, but it is possible to quiet unkind thoughts and replace these with something more useful. Let’s get started by learning more about the ABCDE method.
Learn your ABCDE
The ABCDE method was created by Martin Seligman, PhD and described in his best-selling book, Learned Optimism. Seligman believes that people can become more optimistic by challenging negative self-talk and replacing pessimistic thoughts with more positive ones.
Seligman based the model on the work done by the pioneering psychologist Albert Ellis. Ellis identified that it is not an event, situation or person that creates your feelings. Instead, it is your interpretation of the event, situation or person that affects your mood.
Key elements include learning how to challenge unrealistic negative beliefs while exercising self-compassion. With practice, the ABCDE method can improve your ability to cope with strong feelings. It enables you to look at difficulties from another viewpoint, allowing you to choose a more helpful response. Here’s how it works.
- A = adversity: The event or situation that calls for a response.
- B = belief: Your interpretation of what has happened and your role.
- C = consequence: How these beliefs affect your behaviour as you respond.
- D = dispute: The effort you make to challenge these beliefs.
- E = energise: The outcome that emerges from questioning these beliefs.
Next time you bump into unhelpful thoughts that undermine your confidence, pause and notice them without judgement. Consider the tone of voice used and the nature of the comments. Recognise that thoughts are just thoughts, not necessarily a reflection of reality.
Try using the ABCDE method to explore the issues. Consider each element using the prompts below as a guide. Note down your answers without self-editing so that you can review them later. Be kind to yourself as you do this.
A – Adversity. The dilemmas, situations and problems that jolts you into negative self-talk represent adversity. Gain perspective by reviewing the facts. What happened? Be objective about the situation. Think about your role in the event or situation. Describe what you observe without drawing any inference.
B – Belief. What thoughts did you experience at the time? How do you view the issues now? Consider your beliefs about what has happened. Are these helpful or unhelpful? What purpose does self-criticism service?
C – Consequences of your Belief. What are the immediate consequences of your emotions and behaviour? How did you feel, and what did you do as a result? If nothing else changes, what might the impact be on you in the future?
D – Dispute. Review your beliefs about the adversity. Now challenge these. Where is the supporting evidence? Take an objective perspective; what is another way of looking at the issue? Might there be a more helpful scenario or positive alternative? What is this? Write down your thoughts.
E – Energise. Now take a break. Go for a walk outside or get up and have a stretch. Pause and consciously take eight full breaths for a minute. This simple practice will slow your heart rate down and help activate your thrive state by improving oxygen circulation. Now return to review your notes.
What have you learned? Are there more valuable beliefs about yourself and the issue you face? How might things change if you acted upon these new beliefs? What might be the likely impact of this different approach to adversity?
Now consider, what is your first step? Start to write your plan of action what you will do by when. Think about the skills, strengths and resources that might support you along the way. How do you feel now?
The key to disputing your pessimistic thoughts is to first recognise them and then to treat them as if they were uttered by an external person, a rival whose mission in life was to make you miserable. Martin Seligman, Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Centre
Feel what you feel, then choose your response
Looking at self-critical thoughts with a dispassionate mindset prevents being bounced into toxic beliefs that can end up directing your actions. Use the ABCDE model to explore alternatives ideas that you can act upon to create more positive emotions. Then you are on your way to crafting for yourself a more hopeful and happier future.
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