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Negative self-judgment is a harmful mental pattern where we judge ourselves and tell ourselves negative opinions as if they are facts. This negative self-judging can be blatant, or it can hide inside of other feelings, like insecurity. The following tools are designed to help our brains shift away from these harmful patterns into more self-affirming ones.

This article is part of the Anxiety Tools Series. Click here for more tools that help with anxiety.

Also, please note that this article is not medical advice, nor is it a replacement for medical care. This is just me sharing some of my personal experiences and the tools that have worked specifically for me.

A photograph is of a squirrel working very hard to get into a “squirrel proof” bird feeder. They are stretched out with their back feet on a thin metal rod that has some sort of small fitting on it and their front feet on the edge of a hanging tray full of bird seed. Their head is up and they are looking around alertly.

 

 

Building Resilience by Taking in Positive Things

There are things that we can do to build resilience so that we have more to work with when we are struggling. On thing that is especially helpful for dealing with judgement is to really take in positive events and successes, even little ones. Brains naturally focus more on negative things, so it takes conscious effort to give more focus to positive things.

The most effective way to do this is different for each person. It is all about figuring out what works best for you. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Do a silly, fun victory dance to mark each success.
  • Find one thing you are proud of each day to share with a friend or partner, even if it is as small as replying to emails, washing a few dishes, or giving your pet some attention.
  • At the end of each day take a moment to reflect on the positive things that happened that day.
  • Make a list of successes that you add to each time you have a new one.
  • Give yourself a hug each time you accomplish something. I find that hugging a pillow can be an especially good way to give myself a hug.
  • Every time that you journal, set aside a moment to write down positive things that you want to remember.

Another reason why focusing more on taking in positive events is so helpful is that the more attention and time we give to a mental pattern, the stronger it grows. So each time that we really focus on taking something positive thing in, we are growing that part of ourselves.

 

 

Three Steps for Working with Negative Self-judgment

Negative self-judgments can get pretty toxic, repetitive, and cyclical. This three step process interrupts that cycle and helps the brain shift to healthier thought patterns.

 

Step 1: Identify Judgment and Set it Aside

The crucial first step in dealing with negative self-judgment is noticing when it is happening. Sometimes it is a conscious thought, but it can also disguise itself as a feeling. For me, the first sign that I’m judging myself is usually that I feel bad about something. If I stop to ask myself why, then I find the judgment. For example, if I’m feeling bad about an interaction I had with someone it is usually because I’m judging myself for not being good enough in some way.

Once a judgement has been identified, do your best to avoid going through the details of what it is. It is time to set it aside. This isn’t easy to do and doesn’t always work perfectly. Just do your best to put intention into setting it aside. For example, I tell myself, “This is a judgement and not a fact. I’m setting it aside now.”

It might seem counter-intuitive, but avoid reassuring yourself about this judgment. This is because reassurance still follows the same mental pattern as the judgement. Saying that something isn’t true is still repeating or emphasizing the untrue thought. That means that reassuring yourself is reinforcing the harmful mental pattern, and the more focus and attention that we give to that pattern, the stronger it grows, so the goal is to avoid that.

 

Step 2: Remember a Time When You Felt Differently

This is where the work of building resilience by taking in positive things becomes super useful. The goal here is to help ourselves step outside of that negative, judgment-focused mental pattern and move into a healthier mental pattern by remembering something positive. For example, if I’m struggling with something that I’m writing and a judgement comes up, such as, “I’m not getting anywhere. It is taking me forever just to write this one paragraph,” I can choose set that judgement aside and then think about a time I felt positively about my writing. In this case, I can take a moment to remember how proud I am that I finished writing the descriptions of thirty six (thirty six!) fantastical magic plants for the Crossroads setting.

Ideally, the time when you felt differently will be a situation similar to the current one, but sometimes that isn’t possible. The most important part of this is the memory of feeling different. That memory can still be helpful even if it isn’t perfectly applicable. For example, if I’m judging myself for not making progress on a project and all I can think of at the moment is, “I was petting my cat earlier and it reminded me that she loves me for who I am,” then that is okay. It is still a time when I felt differently and accessing that memory will help my brain access a different thought pattern that will help me get out of the judgmental one.

 

Step 3: Reframe the Situation

Reframing is a technique where we change the perspective we view a situation from. The goal here is to shift away from negative and judgmental ways of thinking about a situation to more positive and compassionate ways of thinking about it. This is different than reassurance because reassurance is about telling ourselves that the negative pattern isn’t true, which still leaves us following that same negative pattern. With reframing we are instead coming up with a new mental pattern for thinking about this situation that we want our brain to follow.

Because coming up with a new, more positive perspective isn’t always easy, I’m sharing a list of positive and compassionate thoughts that have helped me to reframe things.

  • Self-care matters.
  • My well-being matters.
  • It takes courage to keep going even when something is a struggle.
  • Struggle and failure are a normal part of learning.
  • People value my art because it is meaningful and needed.
  • Accepting help from another person is a gift to them. This is because being able to help someone, especially when they are struggling, feels good. It is connecting and empowering.
  • Asking for help is a gift.
  • I made the best choice that I could in a difficult situation. Even if it doesn’t work out, I still did a good job.
  • It is okay to be where I’m at.
  • The process of working through my feelings is inherently messy. That is okay. Doing this is important.
  • Vulnerability is powerful and transformative.
  • Vulnerability is an important source of connection. Sharing it is a gift.
  • Who I am is valuable.
  • I make the spaces I am in better by being in them.
  • What I’m doing is an accomplishment.
  • I have accomplished a lot.

To illustrate how these ideas can be used to reframe a situation, I’m going to build on the examples given in the previous section. I can reframe from the negative judgement that I’m taking too long to work on a specific paragraph to the more positive perspective that, “Each section of writing takes a different amount of time to work on, some paragraphs are easy and others are hard. That is a normal part of writing. It is okay to be where I’m at.” To use the other example, if I’ve been judging myself for not making progress on a project, I can reframe my perspective to be, “This has been a rough week for me. I’ve been working hard on self-care and that is an important accomplishment. Self-care matters. My well-being matters.”

 

A Full Example

Because talking about how to do something can get abstract, I’m going to work through the entire three step process for addressing negative self-judgement using an example from my personal life.

 

The Example: Feeling Bad About a Project

This has been a rough year for me and one of the things that has been hard is how limited my capacity is. As a result, I haven’t been able to accomplish some of the artistic projects that I wanted to. Sometimes I feel sad about this, but at other times my thoughts slip into self-judgment, especially when it comes to my podcast. I can tell the judgment is happening because I start to feel bad about something, such as not podcasting more.

The moment that I start to feel bad, rather than sad or disappointed, I recognize that judgment is happening. If I were to delve into that feeling it would unfold into a list of negative thoughts like, “I’m not podcasting enough. I’m letting my listeners down. If I keep doing this I’ll never be able to grow my podcast.” All of these thoughts are judgments, so I do my best not to delve into those thoughts. Instead I tell myself, “These are negative judgments, not facts. I’m setting them aside now.”

Next I work to remember a time when I felt differently. The first thing that comes to mind is all of the times when people have told me how much my work means to them. I’ve saved some of the nice things people have said in a document so that I can look at it in moments like these. My work makes people feel seen and teaches people about accessibility. Next I take a moment to appreciate all of the things I’ve accomplished artistically this year. I have produced four podcast episodes, along with resource lists and articles, and I’ve gotten the beta version of my game system online. I’ve accomplished a lot and I’m proud of it. I also take some time to remember how proud I am at the progress I’ve made in supporting my own wellness this year. With the help of my therapist, I’ve created tools that have helped me go from a rough place to a much better place. It took a lot of hard work and dedication and I did that!

Finally, I move on to reframing the situation. Building on the times when I’ve felt differently, I tell myself that, “I’ve been doing some incredibly hard and valuable work supporting my wellness during a year where there was a pandemic, profound injustice that people are fighting back against, natural disasters, and big social change. That is a lot! Just doing that much is an accomplishment. And during this time I’ve producing art that is meaningful to myself and others. I am sad that I haven’t had the capacity to produce more, but I am proud of what I have done.”

 

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