Psychologist Shares the ‘Daily Mental Workout' She Uses to Crush Her Inner Critic: ‘It's Been a Real Game Changer'

Photo: Rachel Turow

For most of her teens and 20s, Rachel Turow was her own worst critic.

"I felt awkward and lonely and weird," Turow, a Seattle-based clinical psychologist, said on a recent podcast episode of "The Happiness Lab," hosted by Yale University professor Dr. Laurie Santos.

Feeling bad about herself was a "core aspect" of who Turow was as a person: She'd listen to self-love and empowerment anthems, but "had no idea how to get there," she said. It was the epitome of self-criticism — a common affliction, and one that Turow referred to as "the smoking of mental health."

"Like smoking, once it gets going, it sort of takes on a life of its own," she said.

Overly criticizing yourself can worsen anxiety or depression, hurt your relationships and damage your self-esteem. In contrast, practicing self-compassion can actually boost your chances of success by encouraging a "growth mindset," which makes improvement feel more achievable, research shows.

Turow, who published a book called "The Self Talk Workout" last year, learned that firsthand. As she trained to become a clinical psychologist, she picked up a set of daily exercises that helped her treat herself more compassionately, she said.

You can use these techniques, too.

A simple routine to crush your inner critic

Turow's "game changer" routine is simple.

Step one: Identify what's prompting your self-criticism. In Turow's case, she wanted to start meditating, and her brain would wander after she closed her eyes.

Then, she'd get mad at herself for allowing those distractions in, and the anger would spiral: Why could she never stick through with things? Why was it so hard for her to do something so simple?

Step two, ironically, centers around the activity that prompted her self-criticism: Take a few minutes each day to meditate, and use that time to process why you're getting so angry at yourself.

Turow said she did it every single day, "over and over and over," like reps at the gym. The practice helped train her brain to recognize moments of self-criticism as they occurred — rather than after the anger had escalated — and ease her self-judgment in real time, she said.

"Gradually, I felt less upset at myself for being distracted, and then that generalized into judging myself less in general," Turow said.

An alternative, if you aren't into meditation

If meditation isn't your thing, Turow has another easy technique: Take a deep breath and say something kind to yourself, like "Inhale, my friend. Exhale, my friend."

Controlling your breath "takes your attention to your physical body, [and] away from that endless cycle of rumination in your mind," Turow said. "You can't really beat yourself up in the same second you're calling yourself your friend."

Breathing practices like this have been shown to reduce stress, and you can use it as a warmup for heavier mental workouts. Doing this a few times a day — particularly on days when you're feeling totally fine — will prepare you for days when the self criticism just won't stop, Turow said.

"It's been a real game changer for me," she noted. "It was really remarkable to me that, over the years, my new normal changed so that my default way of relating to myself is kind and encouraging."

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