Hack your self-critical mind and get unstuck

By Dr. Albert Viljoen

This article is not for everyone. What works for one person, may not work for the next, and we each have our own unique challenges. It will form part of a series, though, so — if this doesn’t speak to you, I’m sure you’ll find something useful in the upcoming weeks.

Who should read this:

If you answer “Yes” to most, or all of these statements, this is definitely for you:

    “I tend to be too hard on myself / self-critical.”
    “I am someone who wants to make a difference in the world.”
    “I have this conflict in me: I’m very driven/disciplined in some areas, and quite the opposite in others.”
    “I tend to be more conscious of my failures than my successes.”
    “I tend to think the best of other people, while noticing the worse in myself.”
    “I often get so busy with work / other people, I forget to take care of my own needs.”

How your mind works

1. The Loop
You’re on a loop. This is not a judgement, it’s just basic neuroscience. Mind-loops are fantastic: essentially, they are a range of default settings in your head, that help you live life efficiently. They enable you to walk without thinking about it, drive while you’re listening to music, and basically run thousands of tasks and conversations on autopilot. These loops are woven together, and can form part of your habits, beliefs and personality. We like to call this system of loops your Default Operating System.

2. The Critic
You also have an ‘Inner Critic’. This is no judgement, either (although the inner critic may make you believe it is.) It is simply a function of your mind. This voice of the Inner Critic enables you to work hard, achieve things, overcome obstacles and pursue excellence. It is present in all humans, and is as natural and essential as the loop-process: it keeps you in line, helps you strive for excellence, and makes sure you don’t slack off.

3. Volume
In some ways, your mind is also like a sound-desk, with various volume dials. During your upbringing, certain beliefs and voices in your life were reinforced — their volume was turned up — while other beliefs were ignored — their volume was turned down.

One of these voices, is that of the Inner Critic. If the volume-dial of the Inner Critic is turned up for most of your life, it eventually gets stuck there, turning it into a loop. Eventually, the inner critic blares away at you on top volume, over, and over, and over again.

The negative loop

Most of us are too hard on ourselves — even those people who seem to be so ‘perfect’. And, for good reason: we believe that, in order to achieve, do good, and live successful, healthier, better lives, we have to try harder. The inner critic helps us with this. However, when it gets stuck in a loop, on a high volume, we tend to confuse the Inner Critic (a function of our minds) with the Truth of Who We Are.

So how do you change this? Well, you’ve already started! If this article made any sense to you, and you’re noticing the Inner Critic playing in your head, you’ve completed the first step of reprogramming your Default Operating System: awareness.

Just notice the voice. Some of us have a whole panel of critics. They may be saying a lot of negative things about you right now. Just notice them, hear them. Breathe into it and acknowledge that it is a healthy and essential part of being human. We don’t want to turn it off — we simply want to turn the volume down, and turn the volume up on other perspectives on your humanity.

After awareness, comes practice. This is where we start reprogramming the mind’s conditioning: one step at a time.

Some things to try:
1. Journal: If you’re not doing so already, start journaling. This article will help you journal effectively, and help you to separate the voice of the critic from the other voices.
2. Turn up the positive vibes. One way to combat the Critic, is with counter-strategy. Make it a mission to notice 5 good things you do every day. WRITE THEM DOWN — it’s important to make it visible: you can put sticky-notes on your fridge, on your phone, in your mirror, congratulating yourself on your accomplishments. If you can’t find 5, aim for 3. Once you reach the target, aim for more.
3. Mindfulness Meditation. Daily mindfulness meditation is a helpful way to distinguish your thoughts and feelings from your identity. It will help you hear the inner critic as something happening, without getting consumed by it.

I’d invite you to try at least one of these activities for a week. You’ll be surprised how simple it is, and more importantly — you’ll start noticing what an incredible human being you actually are. You just don’t see it yet.

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For more intensive programs to help reprogram negative thinking, contact Dr. Viljoen directly.