When we hear the word ‘self-harm’ most of us will think of the act of physically hurting ourselves. But as the name suggests, self-harm is just that – anything that harms the self. This means self-harm can encompass much more than just the physical. In fact, it’s possible to cause ourselves mental and emotional self-harm that can be just as damaging to us in the long run.

Let’s take a closer look.

The inner critic: when our biggest critic is actually ourselves

I’m useless”, “nobody will ever love me”, “everybody here thinks I’m an idiot” – sound familiar? Here’s a (not so) warm welcome to your inner critic. Our inner critic is our own personal running commentary of criticism; the voice inside our heads that’s out to shame us, and cause us doubt at every turn.

Everyone has an inner critic, but some people have a much louder, harsher one than others. This can be down to a number of reasons. Our inner critic is formed from childhood or adolescence, from the voices we had around us when we were growing up. This means someone who suffered emotional abuse – or perhaps very strict or critical parents – will likely have a harsher inner critic to contend with than someone who grew up in a more supportive household.

That said, subtle forms of criticism can also be damaging. Perhaps you had a teacher that ridiculed your abilities in the classroom, or you got bullied for the way you walked or talked. These criticisms – no matter how big or small – accumulate to make us feel like we’re not adequate, as though we’re “different” somehow or that there’s something “wrong” with us that needs “fixing”.

We run into danger when we don’t recognise our inner critic for what it is – a collection of opinions from the past – and instead allow it to dictate our lives. When our inner critic grows unchecked, it can cause us deep emotional self-harm, leading to low self-esteem, self-sabotage, underachievement – and sometimes even depression.

How to stop the emotional self-harm of your inner critic

First off, it can help to remember that your inner critic is actually there to protect you. Our inner critic was formed as a way of guiding us away from having to experience disapproval or shame from the people around us. By creating our own internal voice – a dialogue of those we needed to please – we were, to some degree, able to guard ourselves from experiencing further pain.

Increasing self-awareness and becoming better at recognising your inner critic is the next important step. Learning when to call it out, and replace its criticisms with words of encouragement instead.

Very often we talk to ourselves in a way we’d never dream of speaking to our loved ones. Asking ourselves how we’d respond to a partner, friend or family member can help us find new, more positive ways of relating to ourselves. Working with a therapist can be especially helpful in uncovering our inner critic, working with it and developing a more positive inner dialogue.

Emotional self-harm in the form of patterns

Do you find yourself choosing the same non-committal partner in every new relationship? Or constantly attracting negative or abusive people into your life? Or maybe – despite your best efforts – do you find yourself in a constant state of flux, upping sticks at the first sign of difficulty?

We can also cause ourselves emotional self-harm by remaining trapped in the same destructive recurring patterns.

Of course, becoming aware of these patterns is an important first step. But unfortunately, awareness alone doesn’t always prevent us from doing it all over again next time. This can lead us into a place of frustration and self-blame, “Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

It’s important to point out that these kinds of patterns are often very ingrained and can be really difficult to break out of without the guidance of a mental health professional. So first things first, don’t beat yourself up. It takes understanding, patience and a good amount of practice to break patterns.

Digging deeper can help us understand why.

Patterns are perhaps best explored through the lens of a type of therapy called Schema Therapy. In Schema Therapy, schemas are essentially the coping strategies we develop in order to respond to what life throws at us. Our schemas can be traced all the way back to our experiences in childhood, and develop according to to how our emotional needs were met – or rather, not met.

When we grow up in a secure, boundaried, loving and supportive household, we naturally create healthy patterns in later life. If we’ve had a more challenging upbringing – one in which our emotional needs were not fully met – we might create what’s know as a maladaptive schema as a means of ‘coping’. These maladaptive schemas are best understood as self-sabotaging patterns of relating (to others and also to the world) that we carry with us into adulthood.

A few important things to note about schemas:

  • They are created in childhood.
  • They are unconscious which means that we’re probably not aware of them.
  • They are absolute truths. E.g. Beliefs, such as, “Everyone leaves me in the end”.
  • They are constant, clouding our every decision or move.

Understanding the above should make it obvious how maladaptive schemas can ultimately lead us into a negative cycle.  At their core, maladaptive schemas distort our reality and without developing awareness around them, we can easily wind up trapped in our very own perpetual version of GroundHog Day.

Here’s an example.

At 10, your parents divorced and you end up living in a single household with your mum. Your mum had a tendency to over-rely on you. Maybe she treated you more like a friend, and shared her deepest secrets with you, or perhaps she went through periods of emotional instability and you were expected to hold it together or pick up the pieces afterwards. Despite your best efforts, in later life you find yourself struggling to maintain a healthy relationship. Maybe you always play the caretaker to down-and-out sorts or you have a tendency to ‘lose yourself’ in your relationships, dropping friends and hobbies along the way. Perhaps you struggle to express yourself, hold your ground and say ‘no’ or find yourself getting walked all over at work.

In psychology, this type of over-reliance, lack of boundary-making or blurring between ‘roles’ is referred to as enmeshment.

Because our first attachment was enmeshed – without healthy boundaries – we might move through life choosing partners that disrespect these boundaries too. Or, we might behave in such an unpredictable way in our relationships that we actually provoke the kind of behaviour we have come to expect.

In other words, our schemas lead us towards the familiar, rather than that which is best for us. In this way, we fulfil own self-prophecy.

How to break free from maladaptive schemas and emotional self-harm

The good news is with the right help we can always break free from harmful patterns. As mentioned before, the first step lies in becoming aware of these schemas, and seeing them for what they are.

One thing to look out for is having an ‘overly’ emotional reaction to something, or behaviour that feels out of character. Sometimes we might rationally understand that our response was out of proportion but feel emotionally triggered into action all the same.

Speaking with a therapist provides a safe, non-judgemental space to identify and work with these maladaptive schemas. Schema Therapy in particular works to weaken these maladaptive coping strategies and replace them with healthier ways of relating and coping instead. In this way, therapy empowers us to release the chains of our past and at last get our emotional needs met in the way we need – but also crave.