Do You Have an Anti-Critical List?
Contradict the critic within with a ready list of self-observations
The neverending carousel of self-criticism
If you are human, then you have self-critical thoughts from time to time. If you are like most people you have them somewhere in the neighborhood of frequently. Sometimes these are simple things like ‘gee, I should have called mom today’ or ‘why am I so forgetful?’ but they can turn into much more cloudy thoughts like ‘I’m no good’ or ‘everything I do turns out horribly!’
It’s not that you can’t stand improvement — everyone can. But a stream of self-criticism is seldom intended to create such improvement, and even if it were there is little chance that it will bring about the kind of improvement you seek. Imagine that you have a friend (this may take very little imagination) who constantly engages in a monologue of negativity. This is wrong, they hate that, what the hell is that person wearing? After a while, you tune this person out and you no longer hear what they say because it is just an endless broadcast of the same old thing.
A constant mental stream of self-criticism is just like this. But because the voice that says these things is inside your own head, you may not be able to tune it out as easily, nor recognize that what it is saying is simply not true. Instead, you internalize it or allow the emotions that it raises to completely paralyze you.
There can be many reasons that your self-criticism gets out of control. It may be that your parents were overly critical, or you were always criticized at school or in various work environments. You may suffer from chronic anxiety or be depressed or afraid that you will fail. The best way to deal with these issues in the long term is to get help. Depending on the issue you may need psychotherapy or you may be able to benefit from improved diet and exercise or a program such as yoga or meditation. Over time we can experience the reactions that our thoughts give rise to and start to understand that our thoughts don’t necessarily equal reality.
But in the meantime, these thoughts will still play havoc with our lives, and we need a tool to help make things better while we are working to pierce the veil of our self-critical delusions.
Creating your anti-critical list
So, my suggestion is that you begin to keep what I call an ‘anti-critical list.’ Take some time when you are not feeling particularly critical to think about yourself and your life. What are your positive attributes? Everyone has some, and chances are that you have more than you think. Start with something that makes you feel good. Chances are, it’s something you do well or that highlights something positive about you.
You like to read: you are curious, intelligent. You like to cook or sew: you are industrious, good with your hands, provide for your family. You are good with money: you are frugal.
From there you can branch out as you start to find good things to say about yourself. These may strike you at odd moments: taking a shower, picking up dry cleaning, preparing dinner. I suggest you keep a list of them. If you keep a journal, take a few pages in the back or front and list them there. Otherwise, take a blank book and start writing them there. Keep adding to them. The anti-critical list is like a bank account of good will towards yourself. Keep making deposits, and soon you will have a substantial emotional cushion for yourself.
When you find yourself engaged in self-critical internal dialogue, you can turn to this list and read some of the things on it, replacing the time and energy devoted to negative self-criticism with positive self-support. Over time, you will be able to do this without consulting your list, and your meditation practice will begin to help you see these self-critical thoughts for what they are. Instead, you’ll come to terms with your own thought processes and mind games and you’ll deal with them in an effective manner.
Look at others less critically, too
The great thing about the anti-critical list is that you can apply it to other people as well. Keep a list of anti-critical thoughts about your partner, your brother/sister, your boss, your neighbor. When you find your mind going off into a critical rant about these people, you can look at the list of positive attributes you have about that person. Believe it or not, this can help you in much the same way as your list of positive attributes about yourself.
Finally, you can use this same technique on a global scale. Upset about the ecosystem? Keep a list of positive things that are going on, organizations that are making a difference, stuff that’s going right with the planet! Just as with yourself and your immediate circle, start to focus not on what is going wrong, but on what is going right. It’s not that you deny that there is real suffering in the world, or that everyone could improve in some way. But to focus exclusively on the suffering, on the things that you or others don’t do correctly or skillfully, is just as deluded as having a Pollyanna point of view. So start your anti-critical list today, and practice with it regularly.