So as a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, the presenting problem of a lot of my clients is, you guessed it, anxiety. As you can therefore imagine, I often engage in standard anxiety treatment that is CBT in nature and composed of breathing techniques and thought restructuring. …and listen, this traditional treatment does in fact work, so I don’t want to minimize its application. However, I’m always baffled by a common problem among people with anxiety (and, heck, people in general) that I am convinced is a leading cause in the development and maintenance of any anxiety disorder. What is this culprit, you might ask? The answer: It’s your mean, ferocious, subconscious, and self-abusive critical voice.
After 10 years of practice I am convinced that an imperative part of any anxiety treatment involves reducing the power of a person’s inner critic. What people don’t realize is that when bad-feeling symptoms emerge, and they start to feel sick or uneasy, they are simultaneously judging the presence of these symptoms harshly and negatively. What do I mean? Well, for example, upon feeling anxious, people don’t realize that an internal voice is often saying things like, “Hey dummy, stop this!” “You will look weak.” “You are meek and powerless if you let this happen.” “This doesn’t happen to successful people.” “What the f*&k is wrong with you, idiot.” “Do you know what you look like right now?” “Suck it up.” …and the list of nasty, disparaging, derogatory, and sadistic things I’ve heard just goes on and on.
C’mon now. Don’t you see the problem here? In being so cruel to oneself, anxiety symptoms will inevitably exacerbate (potentially to the level of panic) and perpetuate (potentially in the long-term). And at the risk of sounding like an 80’s After-School Special, what if I told you that the key to reducing your anxiety once and for all might just be to reach for a little more self-compassion when you feel your anxiety coming on?
Look, getting my clients to be kinder to themselves after a lifetime of self-depreciation is one of the hardest tasks I am faced with. Self-criticism is a pattern a lot of us began very early in life, so trying to heal passed self-abuse is one of the most difficult things any of us will ever do. …but it is doable if you consciously work at it. Good self-esteem is a choice, so use it or lose it. Here’s what I want you to do.
Steps in healing anxiety with self-compassion
1) Acknowledge the moments of your day in which you are mean to yourself. (You might need help from someone close to you because if you are self-critical, chances are you are so habituated to the abuse that it doesn’t even faze you.)
2) Identify your derogatory beliefs around having anxiety specifically. List them and be honest. Unfortunately, when we dissect our beliefs about anxiety (and many other conditions), we realize that we are active contributors to the stigmatization of mental illness. Sure, people maintain that they are open-minded when it comes to psychological conditions and psychological treatments, but harsh self-judgement about their own symptoms is evidence that more self-development is needed before eliminating their prejudices.
3) You will now have to start a new thought program that includes thoughts of self-compassion. You must revisit everything you once believed was stupid or weak or limited or incompetent within you and you must change the paradigm, because guess what? You were wrong the whole time! You are not a dumbass and are instead a capable and (at least) decent human being. If you are prone to believing that having an anxiety issue in public, for example, makes you a useless human being, you must counter those beliefs with evidence that you are not really that bad (Look, I’d love to get my clients to seize and accept their beauty and power but that’s a bit of a stretch - you can’t go from feeling useless to feeling exceptional. So, I ask my clients to reach for thoughts that are even just a bit nicer than what they’d normally say to themselves. Therefore, saying things like “it’s not that bad” or “I am an adequate person” is great progress).
In sum, call out your critical voice, identify what it says to you daily and, in particular, notice what it thinks about your anxiety. Write a list. Keep track of it and get help with that if you must. You will likely be surprised to find that you are a complete a**hole to yourself and it’s time to stop. Do you really want to feel better? Do you really want your anxiety to decrease? Well, it’s time to start acting more like an After-School Special for yourself and have some frikin’ compassion for who you are and what you are going through!
Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.