In January, the gyms are crowded and dating sites like this one see their highest levels of traffic.
That’s a good thing—the New Year is a terrific time to challenge yourself to improve your life. But as most of us are painfully aware, most New Year’s resolutions don’t stick, as the lure of streaming videos and salty snacks often overtakes our desire to be more fit, organized or sociable.
When that happens, many people berate themselves. “You’re so lazy!” says the harsh inner voice. “What a slob!” “No wonder you can’t find anyone to date!”
We say these things to ourselves because we think it will motivate us to get off the couch and stick to our pledges, but research has found that this harsh approach doesn’t help—and in fact can hinder progress. If you tell yourself you’re a fat slob with no willpower, what’s the point of trying to stick to your diet? If you’re convinced that you’re a lazy, undesirable sloth, why bother dating at all?
Fortunately, a study published in Cognitive Therapy and Research reveals an effective way to deal with the inner critic: talk back.
Researchers Allison C. Kelly, David C. Zuroff and Leah B. Shapira worked with individuals who suffered from facial acne and felt high levels of shame about their appearance. They divided the participants into three groups, one of which was offered strategies for challenging their inner critic.
These participants first imagined a defender—a strong, logical, and confident being who could confront the critic. They then wrote a letter to their critic from their defender’s perspective. They were told that their letters should express the view that they were strong and unbeatable, and hold the belief that their inner critic was unnecessarily or excessively harsh. They were to express confidence in themselves and their appearance, and have courage to fight back when the critic attempted to make them feel small or weak.
To assist them in this endeavor, the participants were provided with this sample letter: “I’ve been letting you attack me for some time now, and I’m not going to let you continue to put me down in the way that you do. You make me feel horrible and say things that are probably not even true. I’m going to stop believing what you say, because I can be logical and see the falsehoods in what you say to me … from now on, I’m going to stand up for myself when you say negative things to me. I’m smart enough to see that you have no evidence for most of what you say to me and I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t deserve to be treated in the harsh way you treat me, and am strong enough to stop you…”
After they wrote the letter, the participants wrote five statements in which they talked back to their critic. For example, ‘‘I have the inner strength to fight my distress and your role in creating it.” For the next two weeks, they repeated their statements three times a day, while conjuring their defender’s strength and resilience.
In just two weeks, the researchers found that the participants who followed this program had lower levels of depression, shame, and even skin complaints.
While this study dealt with a very particular problem—facial acne and the ensuing insecurity about appearance—it’s instructive for anyone who is hampered by harsh self-talk.
The inner critic is powerful because most people don’t recognize that it’s there; thoughts like, “You’re such a loser” or “No one wants to date you” pass through the mind without scrutiny.
Once you start to examine those toxic messages and recognize that many, if not all, of them are untrue, you can start to defend yourself against them. Like many liars and bullies, the inner critic withers in sunlight.
Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.