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When we are in emotional pain, our thoughts can be more against us instead of for us. Our inner voice can be the one that puts us down the hardest. This critical voice could have developed for various reasons: family of origin, bullying, or abusive/unhealthy relationships. Whatever the reason, this critical voice goes too far and leads us into the vicious cycle of avoidance and disconnection.

A way we learn to cope with this negative voice is avoiding anything that may elicit negative emotions which will lead to our critical thoughts. Avoidance may be a helpful coping mechanism in the immediate situation, but if we simply distract ourselves from the problem we will never find true healing. Here are some strategies you can try to help you cope with painful experiences by taking the edge off of those extremely hurtful thoughts that your mind throws at you.  

Slow Down and Notice

The first part to dealing with critical thoughts is noticing when they are happening in the first place. This sounds easy to do, but it can be harder than you think. This is part of why mindfulness exercises are beneficial. When we are in the storm of emotions, it can be hard to recognize when our thoughts are going too far. When we’re sad or upset, of course we will have not-so-positive thoughts, but can we notice when it crosses the line of unhelpful and hurtful? For example, self-blaming, generalizing, or all-or-nothing thinking. My go to exercise is mindfulness to get me to slow down and become aware of what’s going around and inside me. When you notice you’re feeling emotionally agitated, focus on slowing down your mind by recognizing your thoughts as thoughts and avoid placing any judgments on them yet.

Write It Down

Journaling is a practice I recommend for anyone to help get a better understanding of where their mind is wandering. The act of writing thoughts down also slows you down, which we discussed above as being beneficial. Try not to judge the thoughts you are writing down and focus whatever comes to your mind when you’re having the negative thoughts.

Self-Soothing

This is the part after you’ve given yourself space from the critical thoughts and engage in healthy coping. Instead of reacting to your hurtful thoughts, what can you do to heal the pain you are feeling? If you’re feeling the pain of sadness because of loneliness, what can you do to find connection? Rather than letting the thoughts of “No one wants to be with you because you’re X and Y” control you, what can you do to meet your need for personal connections? This is the space where you can speak self-compassion into yourself. Think of what you would say to someone you care about that’s struggling like you. Image them thinking, saying or doing the same things you are. What would say to them to help them? Now try repeating it to yourself! Give yourself the advice you give to another.

Further Recommendations

My recommendation is to practice noticing your thoughts during peaceful moments. It is much easier to implement these strategies when your not dysregulated! Then, when you are experiencing pain and anxiety, the hard work and practice you’ve spent will pay off and be much easier to do. It’s hard to practice giving yourself space to notice if you’ve never done it before. If you’re finding it difficult to keep track of what’s going on when you’re hurting, don’t be afraid to ask for help! Trying to get through painful emotions is scary and not easy to do on our own. Find a safe space for you to process through tough experiences with someone you trust.

I teach people mindfulness and other coping mechanisms all the time in my work as a counselor. There are fabulous resources available all over the internet, but I recommend doing them in the context of connection. If you want to better manage your critical inner world, I would be glad to help! Reach out to our office today.

Written by therapist Daniel Pak

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