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What to Do When Self-Judgment Creeps In

I got a new iPhone a few months ago, and it came with a new version of the Health app. This new version includes comparisons to my prior activity levels, with such “helpful” information as:

I have to admit that I feel a bit prickly when I see these comparisons come up. It feels like my phone is judging me or taking me to task for not doing as much as I “should” be.

But of course, my phone and the Health app don’t have emotions. I’m the one putting judgment behind this, even though it doesn’t serve any purpose except to make me feel defensive.

It’s also interesting because I’ve come a long way in my self-talk, but apparently it’s a continuing journey – and I suspect that’s true for most people.

So if you also feel some self-judgment creeping in, here are a few tips to move towards self-acceptance.

1: Notice When it Happens

As with most things, the first step is to notice when you hear that critical inner voice or get that prickly feeling I noticed when I looked at my phone.

Is it because of something you’re eating (or maybe not eating)? Does it come up when you overeat or eat when you’re not hungry? Is it when you look at yourself in the mirror? Or perhaps when you’d planned to do something active and don’t follow through?

See if you notice any patterns. Depending on your situation, you may notice such self-criticism coming up a lot, or it might only be for a few specific things.

You may even find that you’re judging yourself because of how often you’re judging yourself!

Whatever the case, write down any triggers you can identify. This will help with the next step.

2: Find the Root Cause

Some of you know that I work for a software company, and as with all software, ours isn’t perfect when it goes out the door. When someone reports a bug, the developer who fixes it has to identify the root cause.

This can be different things – incorrect requirements, a mistake during testing, a coding defect, etc. The idea behind tracking this is that if we know what types of events cause more bugs, we can try to change our approach. For example, if the problem is how we gather requirements, we should look at changing that instead of continuing to fix bugs.

The root cause for self-judgment is very different, of course, but the concept is the same. If you can figure out what’s causing you to talk to yourself in a critical way, you can work on changing the underlying problem rather than dealing with inner criticism.

For example, in my case, the root cause seems to be that I’ve subconsciously bought into the goal of taking 10,000 steps a day. Intellectually, I know that it’s a fairly arbitrary number to aim for, and I remind myself that when I was in very good shape in my late 20’s, I got there without tracking my steps. I also know that the quality of steps can vary a lot even the same numbers – walking around the house is different than a brisk outdoor walk.

But still, when the app reminds me that I’m further away from 10,000 steps, I feel like I’m doing something wrong.

Your root cause might be different. Maybe you’re echoing judgment you learned at a young age, maybe from a parent or other adult (or another child). Maybe you’re hearing your doctor’s voice. Maybe you know that whatever you’re doing will make you feel bad physically, and you judge yourself for doing it anyway.

Whatever it is, see if you can get to the root of the problem.

3: Switch to Self-Acceptance

Once you know what’s driving the judgment, you can find a way to reframe your response to one of self-acceptance.

One way I like to do this is to reply to the critical voice by saying, “Yes, that’s true, and?”

The “yes” part allows you to acknowledge the behavior with acceptance instead of defensiveness. The “and” part is a way of exploring the critical voice a little more and making that part of yourself explain why it’s speaking up.

In my case, that conversation might go something like this.

Critical voice: “I see you’re not walking as much this year.”

Me: “Yes, that’s true. And?”

Critical voice: “Well, if you keep that up, you’ll keep walking less and less and end up as a couch potato.”

Me: “That’s a little extreme. Did you consider that I might have simply adjusted my activity level to fit into my lifestyle in a way that works for me?”

Critical voice: “But you might start gaining weight if you’re not walking as much. You’re supposed to take 10,000 steps to maintain your weight and stay healthy.”

(As an aside, beware of any comments saying “supposed to” or “should.”)

Me: “Did you know that the whole 10,000 steps may have just been a marketing gimmick for a Japanese pedometer? Besides, my goal isn’t a specific weight but rather to be reasonably healthy and able to do the things I want to.”

Critical voice: “You should still be walking more.”

Me: “No, I shouldn’t. I’m walking as much as I’m comfortable with, without obsessing over numbers that other people created, and I’m proud of myself for meeting my goals instead of someone else’s.”

When I do that, I notice that the critical voice goes quiet because it doesn’t know how to handle self-acceptance.

If you focus on accepting your actions or inactions, you may notice the same thing.

You Don’t Have to Live with Self-Judgment

Self-judgment is painful to live with, but the good news is, you don’t have to.

If you pay attention to notice when it comes up, find out what’s driving it, and reframe your inner voice to one of self-acceptance, you can move past that critical part of yourself – and you’ll be happier for it.

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