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How to tell if you’re being a bully … to yourself

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Self-deprecation can affect your mental and physical health. Here's how to treat yourself with more kindness.

I’ve recently become aware that I’m notoriously awful at beating myself up. I’ll relive conversations and situations over and over mentally, tearing myself apart for how I reacted or what I said. Up until now, I thought my self-degradation sessions were helping me realize my faults and grow to become better. But I’m slowly coming to realize that raking myself over the coals could have multiple bad side effects in my daily life.

This habit of beating myself up is actually hazardous to my mental and physical health, according to Dr. Golan Shahar, a professor of clinical health and developmental health psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, and director of the university’s Stress, Self, and Health Lab, who has studied this practice and written about it in his book, Erosion: The Psychopathology of Self-Criticism.

“I suggest defining this trait as an intense and persistent relationship with the self, characterized by an uncompromising demand for high standards in performance, and an expression of hostility and derogation toward the self when these high standards are – inevitably – not met,”  Shahar writes.

Dr. Shahar isn’t the only psychologist seeing the negative effects of self-criticism. Research conducted in the United States, Canada, Israel, and Europe is showing that harsh self-criticism can contribute to a variety of problems, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, a variety of physical health conditions and even an increased suicide rate.

It’s called the self-critical cascade. Even though the first victim of self criticism is ourselves, when we beat ourselves up, we also beat up those around us by creating a negative enviroment. “Self-criticism interferes with people’s ability to experience positive, enjoyable life events,” Shahar writes.

Here are four ways to escape negative self-criticism and react to situations without inflicting mental harm on yourself:

1. Nip self-criticism in the bud 

Dr. Sharar says the best way to stop self-criticism in its tracks is to be aware of how dangerous it is. Self-criticism is usually found in children’s self-dialogue, so the sooner we can stop children from criticizing themselves, the more likely they’ll grow up with better habits. “In particular, parents and school teachers should not be passive in the face of their children’s or pupils’ self-critical utterances (e.g., ‘I suck’), but rather treat these utterances as manifestations of bullying – in this instance, self-bullying.”

But if, like me, you have been struggling with self-criticism in those years after childhood, don’t worry. It’s still possible to mend the wounds we’ve inflicted on ourselves with harsh critique and start being gentler with ourselves. Working on catching those self-critical thoughts as they’re being said and adopting a kinder attitude towards ourselves is the best response when we find ourselves being our own worst critic. “The earlier this is executed, the healthier the outcome is going to be,” recommends Dr. Sharar.

2. End each negative thought with a positive one

Falling into the trap of self-criticism means that you’re exaggerating the negative things in situations. If you catch yourself criticizing your actions or thoughts, make sure to also offer yourself positive feedback. Turn your attention away from the negative things about the situation you’re in and see the good things as well to provide yourself with a more balanced, realistic picture.

3. Stop comparing yourself to those around you

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” President Theodore Roosevelt once said. We grow up comparing ourselves to others — whether it’s measuring ourselves up to our neighborhood friends to see who is the tallest, or asking the person in class who sits beside us what grade they got in the pop quiz, we’re used to sizing ourselves up and comparing ourselves.

Recognize that you were created with a unique set of gifts. Whether you are an author, an artist, a scientist, a maintenance technician, an engineer, a parent, or a student, you have a unique set of experiences that make you different than anyone around you. When a situation or opportunity presents itself, don’t spend time looking around and seeing how you measure up to those around you. Instead, remind yourself of your past successes and challenge yourself to become better.

4. Look at mistakes as learning opportunities instead of failures

Life offers us a wide variety of ways to improve ourselves — and making mistakes is one way that we can become a better person. Instead of feeling awful for forgetting someone’s name, or not remembering to put a big event on the calendar, look at those instances as an opportunity to grow. Think of how you can remember names better for the next social event you’re at, or a better way to organize your schedule. Don’t forget that everyone makes mistakes!

The most important part of learning from our mistakes is putting systems in place so that we don’t repeat our mistakes. Ask for advice from those around you who want you to be successful. Just as the saying goes, “There’s no failure, only feedback.” Mistakes can place us in a situation where we can learn more about ourselves and those around us. When we’re receptive to feedback and the lessons that our mistakes can teach us, we’ll be able to get past the fear of failure and stop being our own worst bully.

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