Mind Monsters – When our thoughts turn against us

Ever have thoughts that tell you "I'm no good," "I'm such an idiot," "if people knew the real me there is no way they'd like me"? These are a sample of some of the truly toxic thoughts our minds throw at us each day. Some days you might be able to ignore them, other days this might be a great struggle and your mind hits you where it hurts, it knows all your weak spots.

The dreaded "shoulds"

"Should" may just be the dirtiest word in the English language. One little word can cause a lot of damage to self-esteem, self-worth, relationships and motivation. By using the word should, even just in our minds, we set up an expectation of success without excuse for failure under any circumstances. For instance, "I should be successful/married/rich/important by age ..." or "I should be able to do this" sets us up to feel like a failure if we can't make good on our promise to our self or others. Then the "shouldn't have done that" and "I should have known betters" lead to self-criticism, doubt, and dissatisfaction with ourselves and with life.

Where does self-criticism get me?

Self-criticism is rarely questioned as it is the natural response of many people after a perceived mistake or fault. When defending why we do it, there are often reasons such as "it keeps me motivated," "stops me making mistakes" or "stops me getting a big head." In reality, self-criticism leads to feelings of failure dissatisfaction with the self, self-dislike, and even self-loathing. Feelings of failure then lead to damage to motivation, making it harder to attempt the task each time, and may increase anxiety and depression.

Maybe you aren't ready to let these high expectations of self go just yet, or maybe you are. Self-criticism usually begins in younger years as we are developing our sense of self, and how we fit into the world around us. Pressures from home, school and friendships encourage us to be our best, but can also encourage high expectations of self and "shoulds" if self-compassion is not also in the mix.

A healthier way of interacting with our thoughts

If you are ready to work on your relationship with your thoughts then there is good news! It is not an easy process, as by now self-criticism will likely be a lifelong habit we need to break.

The first step of this process is becoming more aware of self-criticism as it occurs. When you start "noticing" these thoughts more, you may be surprised at all the times you are quite harsh and judgemental of yourself, such as making a spelling mistake in a note!

There are several ways to initiate self-compassion. One is to practice treating yourself as you might a close friend or family member. For example, when berating yourself for a mistake, ask "would I be saying this to ...?" If the answer is "no," it's time to give yourself a break! You could even ask "what would I be saying to them instead?"

Another way to start giving yourself a break is to literally say to yourself "that's OK" when a mistake is made or something goes wrong. In practice it might sound something like "I did that poorly, and that's OK." It's not an overly positive statement, which makes it easier to use in everyday situations. While you may not be ready to stand in front of a mirror and tell yourself how awesome you are just yet, by just using "that's OK," you may find some relief in the day-to-day battle with the Mind Monsters.

For those with some practice under their belts, using mentalisation techniques such as picturing all the unhelpful thoughts floating down a little bubbling stream on individual leaf boats may help. There are numerous strategies to take the "power" back from these thoughts, such as:

  • Making the thought "silly" through visualising it as a sing-along;
  • Imagine the voice of a TV show character (e.g. Bart Simpson) saying the thought;
  • Or imagine there is an annoying radio spewing out these thoughts;
  • Fill up a bunch of imaginary balloons with the thoughts and watch them float away;
  • Make the thoughts noisy passengers on a bus.

These strategies are the beginning of a journey to self-appreciation and relief from the internal struggle with these Mind Monsters.