Periodically, I revisit my old journals to see where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and to discover patterns related to my personal and spiritual growth (or lack thereof). In a recent review, I noticed an alarming trend: how many times I wrote about the ways I failed at something. Pages were filled with what I did wrong, what I didn’t do but should have, how I should have behaved differently, and countless other ways I let myself down. Too many sentences began with “Why can’t I just…” or “Why do I always…”
And these are just the thoughts that made it onto paper. Countless other self-defeating thoughts have swirled beyond my conscious awareness. As a sensitive introvert, I am indeed in my head a lot. I process everything that happens very deeply. A stressful morning can send me deep into retreat mode - I just want to hide out and avoid all interaction with the world. I find it hard to function when I am overwhelmed, and it can take hours or sometimes days to recover from these overwhelming events or situations. I take things too personally, over-think, over-plan, ruminate, and worry. And when my behavior and choices don’t align to my own impossibly high standards for myself, I beat myself up. A lot.
When our thoughts fill up mostly or even entirely with self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-condemnation, we don’t learn. We don’t change. And we don’t grow. The more we bully ourselves for our behavior and our choices, the more we solidify unhealthy patterns that occur out of habit and become our default and stall our personal and spiritual growth.
So, what do we do? The first thing we need to do is to notice when we are swirling in self-judgment or self-criticism. We can’t change what we aren’t aware of. I do find journaling incredibly helpful for this. When I put my thoughts down on paper, it becomes so much easier to see the patterns in my behavior. (If journaling is not your thing, I recommend you find another tool to support your self-observation and self-reflection practices.)
Throughout the day, as soon as I notice myself feeling overwhelmed or stuck or stressed, or if I notice that I feel like hiding out or escaping from something (or someone), I stop and reflect on what’s happening. I try to “catch myself in the act,” so I can pay attention to the voices running wild inside my head. Sometimes it’s easier to reflect on these situations the next morning.
But whenever you choose to do it, to move through and out of self-criticism, I have found it helpful to examine my self-defeating comments and explore self-reflective questions, such as:
- What happened? How did it make me feel (….overwhelmed, stressed, agitated, sad, angry….)?
- What is it that makes this situation especially challenging or difficult for me?
- What were the self-defeating “tapes” that were playing in my head? What was I saying to myself? Pay close attention to anything that starts with phrases like: I should have, I didn’t, Why can’t I, Why do I always….
- What is the story I am telling about myself?
- Is that story really true? How do I know?
- Which parts of my story are not true? How do I know?
- What is the lesson I need to learn in this situation?
- What can or could I do instead?
- What will I do instead?
- How will I move forward from here?
These types of questions shift us out of self-judgment, self-criticism, and self-condemnation into self-compassion, self-kindness, self-forgiveness, self-care, and self-love. Ultimately, they increase our self-awareness and contribute to our personal and spiritual growth.
Our journal is indeed a safe place to let it all out. I can write anything I want in my journal - what I did, how I’m feeling about something, and what I don’t want to repeat in the future. So yes, let it all hang out. Explore it, examine it, learn from it. And then release it. Let it all go. Don’t get stuck in the negative stories about yourself.
We are all human. We all mess up. It’s a normal part of life. But our flaws do not define who we are. Every choice we have made - even the “negative” ones, have gotten us to this exact moment in our life. We move through life one choice at a time and along the way we are learning valuable lessons about ourselves. Every situation presents us a choice about how to respond and how to move forward. We may not always choose well, but we can always choose again.