Are you very critical of yourself and do you have a habit of putting yourself down?

Jason Brien.

Introjections are the everyday comments, phrases, words or statements from others which we internalize. If these introjections are not monitored, or if they are left unchallenged, we can easily forget where these comments, phrases, words or statements originally came from. These introjections then become so intertwined within our personality, self-image, self-esteem and beliefs that they become concrete and indisputable ‘facts’ about our self. Introjections can be either EGOSYNTONIC (do not cause distress or cognitive dissonance and are thus acceptable and in harmony with one’s sense of self and being) or EGODYSTONIC (causes distress, displeasure, cognitive dissonance and significant conflict with one’s sense of self and being).

Positive and healthy introjections are usually egosyntonic. They are the positive, loving, nurturing, reassuring comments that we receive from the outside world. When people tell us that we are beautiful, kind or smart we internalize these comments and they can positively shape our self-image and self-esteem. For some people though these positive statements can be egodystonic – they cause distress not comfort. If a person is outweighed by negative or unhealthy introjections, it will be much harder for them to value positive feedback from others as they will either misinterpret the intention (“they say that I am beautiful but they just want something from me”) or they will negate and devalue the positive feedback through self-criticism.

Negative and unhealthy introjections are typically egodystonic. They cause stress and distress. These are the mean, insensitive, cruel and derogatory comments, phrases, words or statements that we have internalized from the outside world. These negative and egodystonic thoughts haunt us and they often form the basis of self-criticism and negative thinking/thoughts. When we are critical of ourselves, it is typically because someone was critical of us first. This is not always the case but generally speaking if you looked deeper into a self-critical thought, chances are there is a negative and unhealthy introjection lurking behind it somewhere.

So how do we get rid of negative, unhealthy and egodystonic introjections? We reassure ourselves. We positively affirm ourselves. We engage in positive and healthy self-talk and thoughts. Studies have shown that people who engage in self-critical talks and thoughts have an increased risk of mental health problems compared to those who self-reassure. The ability to reassure ourselves can be challenging especially if our minds are overrun by negative and unhealthy introjections. If we were raised in a loving, caring and nurturing environment, then that environment would have provided us with the positive and healthy introjections necessary to teach us how to self-reassure.

Let me give you an example. If you were raised in a healthy, loving, caring and nurturing environment and you made a mistake or suffered some kind of setback, the healthy people around you would have provided you with reassurance. They might say “It’s ok. I know you are disappointed but you have the ability to give it another go” or something to this effect. Your young mind learns that reassurance can help to ease the pain of disappointment. Although at a young age you might rely solely upon external sources of reassurance to ease your pain you eventually learn that you can use these positive and healthy introjections (through memory) to help ease your pain and that you can even create your own unique positive self-talk and thought dialogue.

For those who were raised in unhealthy, unloving, uncaring and unfulfilling environments, or for those who have become so overwhelmed by negative introjections and self-critical thought to the point that they have forgotten the positive effects of self-reassurance, there will be a need to find ways to develop or regain self-reassurance. The negative and unhealthy introjections and self-critical thoughts will need to be identified and challenged through self-reassurance. An example of a negative introjection might be “I am fat and ugly”. Self-reassurance would challenge this introjection with self-talk and thoughts along the lines of “I may be overweight but I love myself and I am beautiful”.

Mental health theories, strategies and techniques can become quite confusing simply because of the pure volume. So, self-criticism is an umbrella term that encompasses negative thoughts/thinking. Negative thoughts/thinking can be the result of cognitive distortions (also known as ego defence mechanisms), automatic negative thoughts – ANTS (can include both cognitive distortions or intrusive/unwanted thoughts – negative and distressing thoughts which enter the mind randomly and for no apparent reason) or introjections (the essence of this post). The manner in which we manage negative thoughts/thinking (self-criticism) differs just like there are many different ways to lose weight.

Self-reassurance therefore is just one way of challenging and eliminating negative thoughts/thinking/self-criticism including the introjections of this post. But self-reassurance is dependent on self-compassion which is another way of challenging and eliminating negative thinking/thoughts. Likewise, a by-product of cognitive restructuring/cognitive reframing and positive affirmations is both self-reassurance and self-compassion. Make sense? So, if you wanted to improve your chances of losing weight you might diet and exercise and engage in talk therapy all at the same time. Although the 3 weight loss approaches are different and can be backed by different theories and strategies, in the grand scheme of things they all work together to maximise your chances of losing weight.

Challenging and eliminating negative thoughts works on the same principle. The more approaches, strategies or techniques you engage in or even become aware of, the more success you will have in eliminating all kinds of negative thoughts. Focusing on eliminating introjections alone (or focusing only on self-reassurance) for example won’t necessarily allow you to eliminate self-criticism as a whole just like diet alone may not be enough to succeed in losing weight.