"I know I should be kinder to myself - I'm such an idiot!"

One of the most common themes I hear from clients is a strong sense of dissatisfaction with themselves. This can be expressed in different forms: "I feel like a failure", "I hate myself", "I get really angry with myself", "I wish I wasn't like this", and so on. Of course, some negative, self-critical thoughts are natural and most people experience them sometimes, but they can sometimes become overwhelming and make life miserable. These feelings are not enjoyable, so why do we have them? And can we do anything to make them go away - or at least become less troublesome?

Two significant reasons why we have self-critical thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, we are all used to hearing criticism from other people, particularly our parents and teachers, as we grow up. Of course, this is necessary for us to learn how to live safely and coexist with other people, but if it is not done with kindness, the criticism we hear can shape our self image and leave lasting emotional damage. Secondly, we are hard wired to be self-critical. You might ask why evolution would be so cruel - but in the context of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, this makes sense as a survival strategy. We have always been a social species, dependent on co-operation for our continued existence. Imagine yourself as a member of a tribe thousands of years ago: if you don't get on with the few dozen members of the group you risk not being included in the hunt, or protected from predators. Not being liked could literally be a matter of life and death. So the unpleasant feeling we get from being aware of our faults and shortcomings was an incentive to change our behaviour, to help us "fit in". Nowadays, we encounter hundreds of people and it is unlikely that we will form strong relationships with all of them, so our self-critical feelings are activated more often, as our ancient nervous systems constantly try to tell us to fit in with everybody we meet. You can read more about how we are this kind of negative thinking is built in to the way we think in this article at Verywellmind.

Given that these thoughts are unpleasant and often unhelpful, what can we do to lessen their impact? This is a topic that has been researched in the recently developed field of interpersonal neurobiology, which has been very influential on counselling practice in the last ten years. The most obvious answer is to surround ourselves with people who make us feel good about ourselves, through empathy, warmth and emotional connection. Ideally, we would all have a loving, supportive family, and friends and colleagues with whom we can form trusting relationships. Sadly, of course, this is just not how life is for some people - and not everyone can afford counselling. However, there is evidence to show that being kind and patient in the way we talk to ourselves can have genuine benefits, even if no-one else is supporting us. This is explained in great detail in Sarah Peyton's book "Your Resonant Self" - this combines an in depth look at the neuroscience of emotion with a series of practical exercises that can help you train your mind to be kinder to itself. The exercises are in the form of short meditations, and you can listen to the audio versions here without having to buy the book. As the meditations get more advanced, you may find you need to have read the book to understand the context, but the first few are useful for anyone. I would recommend going through them in order and listening to each one several times over the course of a few days until you feel you have started to internalise the process being described before moving on to the next one. You may find yourself feeling resistant at first, along the lines of "it's too new-agey/hippy/cheesy for me" - it may well be very different to your usual way of thinking, but I'd encourage you to try to listen with an open mind and stick with it. As people say, "if you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got."

If you're up for a bit of neuroscience studying and decide to buy the book, you can find it here on amazon. This is an affiliate link, so I get a few pennies if you buy it this way, but of course feel free to find it at an independent book seller with more socially responsible tax practices!

How do you deal with negative thoughts? Have you found any really effective ways to be kind to yourself? I'd love to hear any strategies that have worked for you, so please do leave a comment - you never know how many people might benefit from your experience!

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