How to Stop Being So Hard On Yourself

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Everyone has one: An inner critic. Your thoughts. That little voice in your head that is very opinionated, telling you how to act, what to do and what not to do, judging your appearance, scolding your short-comings. That inner voice holds incredible power over us. Unfortunately, that voice is often extremely self-critical and demeaning. What thoughts run through your head?

"I look terrible. I am so fat."

"I never do anything right."

"I'll never find happiness. I will always be stuck in this situation."

Think about it: How many times have you criticized yourself or thought negatively about your life in the last 24 hours?

Women are especially prone to such self-criticism. This inner voice is the source of stress, negative self-esteem, unhappiness and worry in our lives. There's an entire psychological discipline dedicated to helping people overcome negative thoughts. It's called cognitive therapy and it aims to help people recognize patterns of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts.

Where do these negative thoughts come from? Mostly, they're the collective, cruel voices of our past— parents, siblings, spouses, high school bullies—that we've internalized.

You might not even realize what you're thinking or saying since your thoughts and perceptions come so naturally. To change it, you must become aware of what that voice is saying. It helps to write down your negative thoughts and your re-vamped, positive responses. If you take time to tally the comments you make to yourself, "you'll discover that the vast majority are negative. Keep a "thought log." Three times a day, take a few minutes to write down what you've been thinking. All of it… your thoughts about what your spouse did or didn't do that morning… what your mother said to you… how you felt about your child's behavior. Don't edit—write down the exact words. Keep your thought log for two weeks. This will also help you learn the true nature of your "thought chatter" and better understand your personality by uncovering the patterns.

Once you've identified your thought patterns, its time to start talking back to them. As you notice yourself saying something negative in your mind, you can stop your thought mid-stream by saying to yourself "Stop" then replace that thought with something more positive.

Modifying Your Thoughts

Here are six major types of negative thought patterns common among caregivers. Following each unhelpful thought pattern is an example of a more positive—and realistic—response that you can use as self-defense against that voice.

1. All-Or-Nothing Thinking

In this line of thinking, everything is black and white. If your performance isn't perfect according to your standards, then you see yourself as a failure. You take one negative situation or characteristic and multiply it. You see a single, unpleasant event as a continual pattern of defeat. All-or-nothing thinking often includes use of words like: "always," "every" or "never." Don't over-generalize! Isolated mistakes or failures do not indicate that you will always fail.

  • Negative thought: You are preparing to go to a doctor's appointment. You're running late because Mom had an accident due to her incontinence and you had to change her clothes. When you get in the car, the battery is dead. Your inner voice scolds, "Something always goes wrong. I am always late."
  • Positive response: "I am not always late. There are plenty of times when I am on time. Sometimes, circumstances beyond my control make me late and that is not a reflection on me as a person."

2. Discounting the Positive

Instead of looking at your positive accomplishments, you magnify your perceived failures. You overlook the good things about you and your circumstances and focus on the bad.

  • Negative thought: "Anyone could do what I do. I'm not a good caregiver."
  • Positive response: "Caregiving isn't easy. It's a tough job that takes strength and compassion. I'm not always perfect – no one is – but I do my best."

3. Fortune-Telling

In this line of thinking, you predict negative outcomes in the future. You always think the worst is going to happen. You refuse to try things, because you are afraid that things will go wrong, and the outcome will be negative.

  • Negative thought: "I'm not even going to try to take dad to adult day care because I know he will hate it. He's so disagreeable and closed off to new experiences."
  • Positive response: "I can't predict the future. He may not like it, but I won't know for sure unless we try it. Surely the staff has run across difficult elders before. I will ask them for their advice and help in getting dad acclimated."

4. "Should" Statements

Everyone has their own list of rules and expectations about how we—as well as others—should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. Telling yourself that you "should" or "shouldn't" do something may seem like a good motivator, but it often has the opposite effect: It's a de-motivator. What you think you "should" do is in conflict with what you want to do. You end up feeling guilty, depressed or frustrated. When you constantly tell yourself you "should" do something, and then you don't do it, the result is frustration, guilt and a dislike of yourself.

  • Negative thought: "I should exercise right now. If I don't work out, I'm going to keep getting fatter."

    Feeling like you should do something makes it seem like work, or an obligation. You're also thinking about what will happen if you don't exercise--in other words, you're threatening yourself with punishment (the image of being fat). Subconsciously, you're flooding your mind with negativity.
  • Positive response: "I am working on losing weight to improve my health but I can accept my body at my current weight. I'm going to make a list of activities that I enjoy that will help me get in shape."

5. Labeling

You identify yourself or other people with one characteristic or action. You call yourself names. "You are a terrible person." "You are getting old and fat." Most of us wouldn't dream of speaking to another person like that. But we have no problem routinely addressing ourselves in a disrespectful, even demeaning, way.

  • Negative thought: You procrastinate and put off doing the laundry and think, "I am lazy."
  • Positive response: "I am not lazy. Sometimes I don't do as much as I could, but that doesn't mean I am lazy. I often work hard and do the best that I can. Even I need a break sometimes."

6. Personalizing

You take responsibility for negative circumstances that are beyond your control. Everything is your fault. You assume responsibility even when there is no basis for doing so. You arbitrarily conclude that what happened was your fault or reflects your inadequacy.

  • Negative thought: "Mom has to be put in a nursing home because I failed as a caregiver."
  • Positive response: "You have taken good care of Mom for three years. Her condition has gotten progressively worse and it is to the point where she needs constant medical supervision. It is her condition and not my shortcomings that require her to be in a nursing home."

Knowing that negative self-talk is destructive behavior is one thing. Stopping it is another issue. The first step is to draw attention to the voice in your head. What is it saying? Then, to live a happier, more positive life, re-frame your thoughts by using the examples above. Don't listen to that voice! Instead, talk back to it.

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25 Comments

No inner critic here for me about caring for my father. I did more than all of my selfish siblings and their selfish kids combined.
They are already eyeing up his assets and they are going to be quite disappointed when there are no assets left since I am using them up to pay people to come and sit with him while I resume my life and get out of this house.
Well it is a journey for sure. I am getting better but most certainly have my moments. I must remember to detach, most of the time I do, but....there are those times when I get hooked in, or my buttons are pushed. My mother called me a bitch tonight, and I immediately got angry, just like a doctor's hammer on the knee, boom. I did not say or do anything, I just felt the anger seethe and rise within me. I had to take a moment to regroup, and you know what I did not feel guilty this time, oh no. I just said to myself, this happens, it is okay, you are okay, she is okay, it is a reversion to her personality of earlier years. I just said hey go with the flow, let it go and take good care of yourself, smile and move on and forward. We really need to let it go, we don't put our hand on a hot stove and wait and decide to see if it hurts, we let go immediatly, that is what I am doing now. God bless us all and thanks for this place where I can vent to people who really really know what it all feels like.
I think a thought log is a GREAT idea!!! I get down on myself for thinking thoughts that make me feel guilty. My PD mom is a wonderful woman but I feel frustrated by her progression and sometimes wish she wanted to go to asst lvg (she does not) so she wouldnt' be BOTH wouldn't be isolated in this house. I especially feel this @ 1 or 3 in the a.m. when she rings the bell for me to help her to the bathroom and I have a hard time falling back to sleep. Also have the negative thoughts over mealtimes now. SHe hasn't reached the swallowing probs yet although from what I read -- it will come. Now, it's like she hates everything --even something she liked a few weeks before. All she wants is sweet stuff. The lists of dislikes is growing fast and not being replaced with likes. I find myself thinking "if you were hungry, you'd eat it" but then I feel bad b/c it's probably her condition or the meds or a combo. I love this website and don't feel so all alone!