Thursday 22 March 2018

Mental resilience - Step 1: Confront the 'inner critic'

In the first instalment of his mental resilience series, psychologist Dr Paul D'Alton outlines how our thoughts can sabotage our growth

Dr. Paul D'Alton
Dr. Paul D'Alton

It's that time of year again. The time of year we make new year resolutions that most of us manage to keep until the drudgery of mid-January gets too much and we give up.

There are two reasons why our resolutions tend to fail. Firstly, January is the worst time of the year to take on the new challenges that make up new year's resolutions. It's cold and dark and really a time for hibernation, for slowing down and actually doing less. Secondly, most of us tend to make new year resolutions out of guilt because we have over-spent, over-eaten and over-drank for the month of December.

Our new year resolutions tend to be a personal punishing austerity aimed at undoing the excess of the season just finished. Lifestyle changes brought about by guilt rarely last. When we introduce changes into our lives that are guilt-fuelled they are destined to fail.

Despite the common understanding that tough love, criticism, guilt and even shame motivate people to change, the psychological evidence tells us something different. When changing our lives is motivated by criticism, guilt and shame it makes us anxious. Very importantly criticism, guilt and shame also increases our avoidance strategies. Decades of psychological research have consistently found that avoidance plays a key role in maintaining our problems.

Self-criticism, guilt and shame scare us and when we're scared we seek safety in the familiar. We take comfort in procrastination and addictive behaviors like overeating, drinking and constantly checking our phones. All these behaviors are ways of 'getting out of our heads' because the 'inner critic' who hangs out in there is too difficult to live with.

We all have an 'inner critic' - some are louder than others. The inner critic is that internal, sometimes unconscious soundtrack that tells us we're not good enough; not smart enough, not funny enough or skinny enough. It is the inner soundtrack that varies in volume but essentially repeats the same message - you we are essentially inadequate, worthless and really not very bright or loveable.

The persistent negative self-talk, the on-going commentary of the 'inner critic' affects how we interpret things, triggers low mood and anxiety and essentially gets in the way of us living happy and meaningful lives. The inner critic paralyses us and actively sabotages the changes we want to make in our lives.

When we make resolutions driven by the 'inner critic' we are setting ourselves up for failure. The terrible truth is that the 'inner critic' doesn't want us to change anything - even giving up things. The 'inner critic' thrives on keeping us in a loop of guilt, shame and paralysing behaviors.

The 'inner critic' gets its power because we don't acknowledge it. It thrives because we tend not to talk about it and because we try to keep it at arm's length so it takes up residence in our unconscious mind. From here it can run the show from behind the scenes.

The cold and dark days of January, the time for slowing down, is the time to get to know your 'inner critic' by acknowledging it to yourself and others. Breaking the silence will break the power of the 'inner critic' and allows us develop an 'inner compassion'. By developing a more compassionate attitude to ourselves we can make the life changes that will not only last, but we can live happier and healthier lives.

* Next week: the role of compassion

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