04/01/2015 03:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Stop Bullying Yourself


By Sarah Best, LMSW, a psychotherapist at the Seleni Institute, a nonprofit mental health and wellness center for women and mothers in New York City.

Self-criticism is a universal struggle. Many of us are much harsher on ourselves that we ever are on others. Here's just a sampling of the things I have found myself saying (to myself) at times: "I'm never prepared." "All I do is yell." "I'm a disaster."

As a psychotherapist, I know that kind of talk is unhelpful at best, and damaging at worst, and yet I still fall victim to it. Because we all do. And it takes work to change it. But it's worth it. Healthy self-appraisal is associated with reduced depression and anxiety, more satisfying relationships, and improved overall quality of life.

So here are three steps to start treating yourself as you treat others.

1. Listen to your self-talk. Most of us talk to ourselves - narrating our successes and failures - all day long. This streaming commentary, which cognitive behavioral therapists call "self-talk," is usually internal and automatic. And we're often not even aware that it's going on at all.

But self-talk is powerful. When you spill your coffee, do you declare yourself a slob who ruins everything, or do you laugh it off? When a friend compliments your dress, do you think, "I feel great in this!" or do you wonder whether she's implying that your clothes are usually frumpy? The first step to changing how you view yourself is to listen to how you talk to yourself.

2. Evaluate its credibility. Once you've tuned into your self-talk, it's time to explore it. Although healthy self-talk is based in reality, unhealthy self-talk distorts it. Whether it exaggerates the consequences of your actions ("You're a coffee-spilling slob!") or claims to know others' opinions about you ("She thinks I'm frumpy!"), unhealthy self-talk triggers real emotions with unrealistic, or irrational, statements.

Here are some irrational thought patterns common in negative self-talk:

• Catastrophizing: Predicting negative outcomes while ignoring other possibilities
• Black and white thinking: Seeing things (including yourself) as all good or all bad, rather than somewhere in the middle
• Mind reading: Assuming that you know what others are thinking
• Emotional reasoning: Believing something is true because you feel like it is, without having any real evidence

You can find a comprehensive list of examples of distorted thinking here.

3. Challenge unhelpful messages. If you notice yourself using unhealthy self-talk, you can change it by reacting to it in the moment you experience it or by reflecting on it later. Here are some powerful strategies to end irrational self-talk.

Examine the evidence. When there isn't compelling evidence for your unhealthy self-talk statements, tell yourself so - again and again.

Generate an alternative, more positive hypothesis that's based on the evidence that you do have. For example, if you declare yourself a terrible mother when you lose your cool and snap at your son, encourage yourself to think again. If your yelling upsets you that's a sign that you care about how you communicate with your child. So instead of branding yourself terrible, recognize that you must have been really frustrated. Then frame the incident as an opportunity to teach your son - and remind yourself - about the importance of taking time to care for yourself when things heat up.

Identify the thinking error (like the ones listed above) and then construct a new self-talk statement that corrects it. Does a lukewarm, but solid, review from your boss leave you convinced that you're going to end up fired, evicted, and destitute? If so, recognizing that you're engaging in catastrophic thinking can help you reign in your fears and put your review, even if disappointing, into a more realistic perspective.

Imagine the encouragement you might offer a friend, and say those words to yourself. They are just as true when you tell them to yourself. This is self-compassion, and we all deserve it.

For more help during this process, consider picking up a copy of Dr. Melanie Fennel's Overcoming Low Self-Esteem or working with a cognitive behavioral therapist focusing on self-criticism. You can find a one here.

Once you get into the habit of challenging negative self-talk, you'll probably find that it has less power over you and eventually occurs less frequently. This is a great sign that you're doing the hard - but worthwhile - work of silencing your irrational inner critic and beginning a more peaceful and supportive relationship with yourself.

This article was originally published on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit mental health and wellness center providing clinical services, research funding, and online information and support for women and mothers. You can follow Seleni on Twitter @selenidotorg.