Most people, women especially, seem to be their own worst critics, perhaps without even realizing it. Why is it so easy to fall back on self-disparaging remarks about appearance, competence or intelligence? Experts say the causes vary, but most commonly stem from embarrassment, low self-esteem from being raised in an overly-critical family, or a hope that the listener will actually contradict them. But such default responses “are an indirect plea for help that usually goes unanswered,” said Elissa Grunblatt, a social worker and owner of South Bay Counseling in Amityville. The reasons may vary, but one thing is universal: it’s a damaging habit. Over time, it convinces the brain that positive change isn’t possible. Worse, for those who have kids, “They may always wonder if you harbor the same criticisms about them, even if you don’t say it out loud,” noted Pulse therapy columnist Dr. Susan Bartell, a psychologist in Port Washington. Do some of these seemingly-innocent catch phrases sound familiar? Then it’s time to make them a foreign language.
“I’m such an idiot!”
Typical context: A thoughtless word slips out or you spilled a coffee.
First step to stopping: Separate your behavior from you as a person, said Dr. Bartell. Think about future solutions instead of focusing on the current incident.
What to say instead: “Everyone says something tactless once in a while. I know that’s not really who I am, I will apologize and move on,” or “I tend to spill or drop things when I’m rushing. I’d better save hot drinks for when I’m on schedule.” Isn’t it just as good to say nothing? No, at least not at first, our experts agreed. Those who have grown used to spitting out such comments may not be able to resist the impulse without a better alternative at the ready. Also, recasting negative thoughts into positive ones out loud helps to re-train the brain.
“I wish I could wear that dress”
Typical context: A friend perceived as somehow physically “superior” is wearing an outfit that looks great on her.
First step to stopping: Take a good long look at yourself, but only with a positive eye, said George Bein, Personal Trainer and Rehab Therapist at Healthtrax Fitness in Garden City. “Decide which part of your body you like best.” Then, dress to emphasize that feature. Bein has had clients beat themselves up because they couldn’t wear the “perfect” dress to an event. “But what’s perfect for one isn’t always, or even usually, perfect for another. Fixating on the fact that what looks amazing on your five-eight friend with no hips doesn’t look amazing on your petite, pear-shaped frame, only makes it harder to motivate yourself to get into the best shape you can, and to recognize the clothes that will look killer on you,” explained Bein.
What to say instead: “What style of dress do you think would look that good on me?”
“I can never remember anything!”
Typical context: The milk is forgotten, the appointment was next Wednesday or a friend seems slightly annoyed when asked a question she answered earlier that day.
First step to stopping: Look for clues as to why so much is forgotten, suggested Patricia Pitta Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Manhasset. Possible reasons include being overwhelmed and exhausted with too much to do and not really wanting to do or face some things, said Pitta. “Rather than investing energy into putting yourself down, find ways to change your behavior. It’s better to face your feelings and take responsibility for them than to embarrass yourself.”
What to say instead: “I made a mistake, but I can go back for the milk/reschedule my appointment/ pay closer attention when my friends are talking.”
“I could never do that”
Typical context: A compliment to a friend on an accomplishment—memorable party, beautiful decorating project, successful fund-raising event—quickly devolves into dragging oneself down.
First step to stopping: Swap in curiosity for that feeling of defeat, advised Grunblatt. Instead of spending time sharing a negative self-image, show a desire to learn from that person. It’s flattering and certainly makes for a more comfortable conversation than putting someone in the position of having to offer reassurance. Focus on what can be done to create your own success.
What to say instead: Ask any of the following: “What was the first step in making that happen?” “What was the hardest part, and how did you handle it?” “Did you ever get frustrated or doubt yourself? Any advice for handling those feelings?