Silence your inner self-critic and learn self-compassion instead with ideas from Dr Cate Howell, a GP, mental health expert and author of new book, The Flourishing Woman, who shows you how to take control of spiralling negative thoughts.

Words: Dr Cate Howell. Images: Shutterstock

The Flourishing Woman is all about thriving in life. Flourishing is strongly influenced by your mental health and wellbeing, as well as having a sense of belonging, compassion, and fulfilment in life. At times, it is very hard to have a sense of flourishing, especially when life throws challenges in your path. For instance, you naturally compare yourself to others, often fuelled by social media.

This can lead to being self-critical and not feeling good enough. The thoughts and feelings your inner critic creates can lead to suffering and a sense of powerlessness. Many women from all sections of life – whether mothers, older women, sportswomen or celebrities – report low self-esteem and struggle with self-doubt. This can contribute to a sense of shame, symptoms of stress and anxiety and loss of confidence or low mood. The opposite of self-doubt is having a sense of self-worth.

Helpful underlying beliefs about yourself are referred to as self-belief, and these drive your self-talk and confidence. Self-compassion is essential as it means being kind and understanding towards yourself, instead of criticising and judging yourself harshly. The good news is you can grow self-belief and self-compassion to feel the benefits.

Change your thinking
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is based on the idea that your thoughts, feelings and behaviours all influence each other. Meaning your thoughts affect how you feel and what you do and vice-versa. So, to feel or act more confidently, often you need to work on your thinking. Make notes about your strengths and what you see as any weaknesses, such as “I am hopeless in social situations”. Then, take time to reassess and be gentler with yourself.

The aim is to reframe and be less harsh. For example, adjust your thought to: “I tend to be quiet in social situations. I am working on having the confidence to say what I choose to”. You have more than 60,000 thoughts a day, because your brain is constantly processing what is going on around you. The problem is that you can become fused or hooked by any of your thoughts, even the many untrue ones. Thoughts such as “I will fail” or “I don’t have what it takes” can give a reason not to do something positive.

Another way of dealing with unhelpful thoughts comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, specifically “defusion” which takes the power out of thoughts. Defusion involves noticing your thoughts, stepping back from them and holding them more lightly. You can then choose whether to pay attention to them or let them pass. In other words, defusion helps you realise a thought is just a thought!

woman practicing mindfulness and self-compassion via yoga

Explore acceptance
Some things are within your control and many are out of your control. The challenge is to accept what is out of your control and focus on what you can control to help create a meaningful life. Acceptance is a powerful concept in life. It is one of the most challenging things to do, as life involves good as well as bad events.

Equally, feelings are sometimes wonderful and at other times awful. Acceptance is about your willingness to experience the whole range of feelings, without trying to change them. One approach is to become less caught up in painful feelings or thoughts, including the self-critical ones, and be more involved in doing what you care about and value.

Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment, as opposed to being caught up in thoughts or feelings. It also means being non-judgmental about what you are experiencing. When having a cup of coffee in the sunshine, for example, pay attention to the taste and smell of the coffee and the warmth of the sun, rather than getting caught up with worries or thoughts.

In the same way, you can be mindful of your thoughts and feelings, noticing them, rather than getting caught up with them. Through mindfulness you learn that thoughts and feelings come and go. In this way mindfulness can also assist you to develop greater self- acceptance, as you will feel less judgment about yourself.

Focus on positive emotions
If you recognise and use your abilities and strengths, you will be happier and more confident. This approach has also found that enhancing relationships, finding meaning in life through your passions and a sense of purpose, as well as having a sense of accomplishment can enhance your self-confidence and wellbeing.

It also suggests visualisation as a useful strategy for self-confidence. Athletes use this tool to focus before competitions. They visualise their performance and a successful outcome. This has been shown to help. Consider using visualisation before a social interaction or event. To do this, make yourself comfortable, close your eyes and imagine the event occurring in positive way with a satisfactory outcome.

a woman smiling at herself in the mirror while practicing self-compassion

Centre on self-compassion
Most of us have compassion for others, being aware of suffering and feeling moved by it. Having self-compassion is just like having compassion for others. It means we are kind and understanding towards ourselves. Developing greater self-compassion is a golden key to being less self-critical and growing our self-belief. Self-compassion is associated with happiness, optimism, wisdom, curiosity and emotional intelligence.

It activates the soothing and calming parts of your nervous system (parasympathetic and ventral vagal system), so it should be part of your daily wellbeing. One place to begin is by being aware of potential blocks to compassion such as thinking compassion will lead to a sense of weakness or vulnerability or that self-compassion is self-indulgent.

You can work through these blocks yourself or with a therapist. Learning ways to soothe emotions can assist in this process. Calm breathing is useful, and you can breathe compassionately by placing your hands over your heart as a gesture of kindness and comfort towards ourselves. This is worth trying, as it feels very good!

Try the loving-kindness meditation
A good way to remind yourself to practise self-compassion and grow self-worth is through the loving-kindness meditation, based on a poem from Buddhism that puts you in touch with warm and compassionate feelings in an openhearted way and directs these feelings to yourself and then to others. Make yourself comfortable and let your eyes close.

Focus your attention on your breath and relax a little more with each breath out. Relax your body from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Then focus on the region of your heart. Reflect on a person for whom you feel warm, tender and compassionate feelings. This could be a child, partner or a pet. Imagine yourself with this loved one and notice how you feel. Extend loving-kindness to them by saying in your mind: “May you be well, may you be at ease, may you be happy and at peace.”

Hold onto the warm and compassionate feelings. Now extend that warmth to yourself. Extend kindness to yourself as you do others and allow your heart to radiate with love. When you are ready, radiate your warm and compassionate feelings to others: first to a person you know well, and then call to mind others with whom you have connections. When you are ready, open your eyes and come back to the here.

Extracted from The Flourishing Woman: A mental health and wellbeing guide, by Dr Cate Howell (£14.99, Exisle Publishing), out now.