Janie is a twenty-year-old college student who came to see me because she was experiencing deep feelings of sadness and anxiety. She was very successful in her life, had good grades, a supportive family, and friends who loved her. When I asked her what she thought was contributing to her overwhelming sadness and anxiety this is what she said. “I just can’t let it go.”
She went on to tell me about a recent break up she’d had with her boyfriend. They were really close to getting married when she just didn’t feel like it was going to be the right thing. She ended the relationship and since that time, she’d been feeling this way.
“So, you’re really missing your boyfriend?” I asked. She shook her head.
“No, that’s not it. I miss him, but I know that we shouldn’t be together. I just can’t seem to forgive myself.”
She explained that she’d been re-thinking all of her decisions with this relationship; their first couple of dates, the way she’d ignored some of the red flags she’d seen in his behavior, the way she’d broken up with him, and rethinking her choice to do it before the holidays rather than waiting until after, and so on. Once she got started, it took nearly a half hour for her to verbalize all of the things she was struggling with.
“I’m so stupid. I should have known to listen to my instincts… I should have ended things earlier.”
As I worked with Janie, we discovered she suffered from a very strong and sometimes ruthless inner critic who held her to an impossibly high (and arbitrary) standard. As we explored this situation, it became apparent that Janie was incredibly hard on herself in other areas of her life as well.
Janie’s depression didn’t come from the loss of the relationship, but from the harsh self-critical belief, she imposed on her own mind and heart.
Everyone has an inner critic. The inner critic calls us names, scolds us, revisits our failures over and over again, punishes us for making mistakes, and always reminds us that we’ll never be good enough. The pain caused by our own self-judging and critical inner voice is a constant threat to our physical and emotional well-being.
Where does this critical voice come from?
Most of us in one way or another has been listening to this voice for as long as we can remember. I have found that unless parents are specific and intentional in teaching a child to have a growth mindset and to be self-compassionate, our natural preset is to be harsh and critical with ourselves. This is why—our brains are designed to notice the negative, even to the point of developing a negativity bias. Noticing the negative is meant to protect us from danger when there is true danger present. However, noticing the negative in everything can actually cause us more harm, especially when the negativity bias is turned inward.
Unfortunately, unless we learn how to counter this negativity bias we risk constantly waging war on two fronts. So what’s a girl to do?
Self-compassion is being kind, understanding and forgiving of yourself in all situations, but especially when you are feeling inadequate or like you have let yourself or someone else down.
Think about what it feels like when you have compassion for someone else. It begins by noticing that someone is having a hard time or is suffering in some way. As you consider the feelings the person might be experiencing, your heart opens and softens for them.
These feelings are something more than just pity. It’s a desire to help in some way, to try to alleviate suffering by comforting or reassuring them.
Self-compassion is having this same kind of response and attitude toward yourself.
This became the work that Janie and I did in therapy together. Each session she learned to grow more and more self-compassionate until one day, she didn’t need to come to therapy anymore. She learned to be kind and accepting of herself. This new realization using exercises and tools we’ll talk about practiced over a period of weeks released her from the feelings of blame and suffering that were the cause of her depression.
Janie was by nature, a very compassionate person, but she had to learn how to give that same kind of compassion to herself.
Kristin Neff, one of the leading researchers in the study of self-compassion has found that 75% of us are more compassionate to others than we are to ourselves.
She identified three components to successfully practicing self-compassion. They are:
- Mindfulness: Being aware of our struggles in the present moment.
- Kindness: Treating ourselves gently – with understanding and encouragement
- Common Humanity: Recognizing that we are human and imperfect and so is everyone else.
In my work, I add a 4th component:
- Innate worth: Recognizing that our worthiness does not depend upon our actions or behaviors. Others around you are inherently worthy of kindness and care–and therefore so are YOU.
Self-compassion initiates the acceptance and acknowledgment process in our brains and helps us to enter our thinking and reasoning centers. We can solve problems more easily because we are out of fight-or-flight mode and are choosing instead to listen and collaborate with ourselves.
Ok, this all sounds great… but how can I start to practice self-compassion? Great question! There are specific actions and steps to take to begin becoming more self-compassionate right now!
- Be mindful of your feelings
The first step is to practice paying attention to your thoughts and feelings. This is especially true when you’re going through a stressful, hectic, or frustrating time or event. Proactively using self-awareness, your mindfulness will help you across the entire range of emotional situations you may find yourself in; during a period of suffering or during a period where you’re feeling disappointed in yourself or noticing that you have said or done something, or not done something that makes you feel uncomfortable.
The inner critic can speak up so quickly and enter your mind so fast, that if you don’t take the time to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings, you may miss the chance to choose to think about your situation in a different way—a way that builds faith and strength, not fear and weakness.
Janie hadn’t even realized that her inner critic was being unreasonably harsh. She could only focus on the immediate feelings of guilt and worthlessness which she herself was instigating. This then led to more feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
Being mindful allows us to slow this process down and focus for a few seconds on the feelings we are having. During this time, we start to notice our thoughts. We start to see which ones are helpful, rational, and productive versus the ones that simply demean and distract. Helping Janie to work through this process allowed her to slow things down so she could call upon her own compassion.
- Recognize the inner critic’s voice
Once you begin practicing step 1 the critic’s voice will become easier to identify. You’ll quickly realize what the voice sounds like, what her favorite catchphrases are, which of your inadequacies she likes to point out.
It’s important to stay in observation mode as much as you can during this step. You are trying to retrain your brain to do something different.
You are working to stop “beating yourself up”.
Habits can be tough to break, but they can be broken! Just noticing and acknowledging the critical voice will be a big step in breaking the knee-jerk response you have trained yourself to react with.
- Stay neutral
Think of your inner critic as a voice with an opinion. What she says to you is not truth (though it may feel that way). She is voicing a very negative opinion because, in a twisted way, she’s trying to protect you.
But remember, these thoughts are misguided. Just because you’re thinking something negative about yourself doesn’t mean that it is true.
The key words to look for are the harsh, judgmental and unkind labels that leave you feeling beat up. Things like:
- “You are such an idiot”
- “You are so stupid”
- “You are so broken”
Or there are the broad, sweeping generalizations and prophecies of disaster in your future. Things like:
- “You always mess this up”
- “You are always wrong”
- “You shouldn’t be allowed to…”
- “You are a terrible parent”
- “You are not wanted”
Now is the time that you start to talk back to that voice with a neutral voice of reason.
Try saying instead:
“Hold on. These statements aren’t facts. I’m not going to cast judgment on myself either way at this time. I’m going through a tough period right now and I don’t believe assuming I’m wrong or being harsh or critical will help me get through this right now.“
Staying neutral is helpful because it’s It’s a mid-step. It’s halfway out of the criticism without having to go all the way to nurturing (although that is where we will end up eventually). Notice that you aren’t arguing about the criticism you’re hearing, you’re just choosing not to be swayed by it.
That’s why being mindful and staying neutral starts to give us control back. It begins to empower us.
Think of walking into a situation in which two of your dear friends are arguing. Before you step in and choose a side, you would probably pause to get an assessment of what’s actually happening. That’s all you are doing here. Pausing to get into your reasonable and rational thinking mode, because what you are going to do next requires you to be wise.
- Make some important decisions.
This is the place where you start breaking the habit of being ruthlessly critical of yourself
Before you can completely commit to fight against this habit and eventually break it, you will have to answer some important questions:
- Do you think you deserve to be treated with kindness?
- Do you believe all human beings should be treated with kindness?
Do you think you deserve to be treated with kindness?
The key word here is—deserve.
Take time to think through this question. If you’re not careful you might get a knee-jerk answer.
Remember, we’re not talking about earning kindness. This is usually the very core of the problem when self-criticism is raging. We do not feel worthy of anything else.
But if you look deeply at the fundamental rights of human beings, you may find that you qualify as much as any other human being out there (makes sense right?).
If you do not think you deserve kindness, then I want you to articulate in very clear terms and with logical reasoning as to why.
This requires a really deep dive, one that takes you into a philosophical realm.
Do you believe all human beings should be treated with kindness? Do human beings, in general, deserve to be treated with kindness? How about respect? What does a human being have to do to be disqualified from basic human decency? Do people deserve second chances?
If you’re used to harsh internal criticism, it can seem plausible that you are possibly the only human being on earth that shouldn’t qualify for kindness, patience, or you guessed it, compassion.
Don’t believe it. It’s a lie. It may be a well-practiced lie. You may have even been told that lie outright by a parent or a teacher or a spouse. But if you examine it objectively, it cannot hold up to the scrutiny. The statement that you are not worthy of kindness or patience or love simply isn’t true.
Now, allow yourself to claim the status of a human being. That’s all. Just give yourself the same consideration that you give to all human beings everywhere. “I don’t have to qualify for this. I am human and therefore have innate worth.”
Because of the negativity bias in our brains, we selectively pick and choose what we will focus on. This even applies to how we see our worth and value as a human being. Most of us think more harshly about ourselves than we do others.
We don’t allow as much room for mistakes as we do for others. In other words, we can be generally kind and compassionate to those around us, knowing full well they are not perfect, and we have a hard time claiming our own humanness.
So, consider yourself in the same light as those around you. You have worth and value.
- I’m part of a bigger whole
Because you are human, you are part of a greater group. And all of us make mistakes. We all fall short. We all feel embarrassed and disappointed. This is the common humanity that Kristen Neff speaks of. When we feel alone, like we are the only one that messes up, we feel isolated.
Isolation breeds shame.
Shame loves to pick off the outliers in a herd. They are easy prey because they have no defense. When you think you are the only one who experiences suffering, you are probably going to feel shame and loneliness.
Your inner critic eats shame for dessert. The worse you feel, the more shame you have and the more this voice can hammer you.
But remember, this voice is misguided.
When you accept the fact that you are human and shine this truth on your thoughts and feelings, you rejoin the herd and find safety because all of us are imperfect.
Most therapists are trained to not share personal information with their clients in order to keep a professional relationship. But every once in a while, I share with my clients how much I have struggled and do, at times, still struggle with inner criticism. Most of the time they are astounded. (Which always surprises me that they think I have everything together!)
And when I share with them my humanity and imperfection, they almost always notice that their shame and inner criticism lessens.
This is the power of common humanity. This is also why it’s important to reach toward people rather than pull away from them.
Talking about your feelings is vital to undoing this habit because it allows you to actually hear and see the thoughts you are having and get some realistic feedback from people you trust.
This happened to me recently when I passed a fairly new friend in the hallway at the high school during the chaotic but exciting dress rehearsal for the school musical.
I said “Hi Beth!” which would have been a perfectly nice thing to say except…her name isn’t Beth. The moment the name came out of my mouth, I could see the look of confusion on her face. But she smiled a little and waved and we passed by each other on to where we were going.
My heart immediately started slamming in my chest.
“Oh my gosh! I am so stupid!” my inner critic squealed in my mind. “She is going to think you are such a shallow person. You spent the whole afternoon with her yesterday and she told you how hard it is for her to make friends and you messed up her name?” My face flushed, my breathing got shallow. “What kind of friend are you? She trusted you to tell you that. You shouldn’t make mistakes like that. How could you be so insensitive? “
By the time I sat down in the auditorium I was sweating profusely. My other friend welcomed me as I sat down and she saw my distress. “Are you okay?” she asked, putting her hand on my arm.
Because this was one of my dearest friends, and because I feel so very safe and comfortable with her, I told her what I’d just done as if I was confessing a terrible offense.
“Oh, my goodness, you poor thing. I’m so sorry. “ She gave me a quick hug and smiled a very real and very tender smile.
“I have done that so many times. It always feels awful. You have so much going on; your brain has got be swimming with names! I bet you could catch her before she leaves the school tonight and tell her you realized you called her by the wrong name. It will all be okay.”By the time she’d finished smiling at me, hugging me, talking to me and helping me problem solve a solution to my name faux pas, I’d started feeling better. My face cooled off, my heart slowed to normal and I didn’t feel like I was going to cry anymore.
When we are shown compassion, we start to heal our hurt and get strong enough to forgive our imperfection or at least accept it and possibly figure out what we can do next to make it better.
Do you see the wisdom in this approach? Do you see the power in motivating through compassion rather than through criticism and punishment?
Notice that my friend did not justify my behavior. She didn’t say that I did the right thing by using the wrong name. She just acknowledged that I’d made a mistake and then she loved me anyway.
- Flip the frame
This step is where we really start to enact change. Showing kindness to yourself in the midst of inner struggle is true self-compassion, and it has the power to radically change your life.
What we want to do is to flip the frame. If you had a friend who told you the wrong name story, would you show her compassion? Remember the self-compassion researcher, Kristen Neff’s statistic?
- 75% of us are more compassionate to others than we are to ourselves.
This is why showing ourselves the kindness we show others is one of the most powerful steps in growing and strengthening our self-compassion. Without self-compassion, we cannot take care of ourselves or give ourselves what we need to feel safe.
One of the best ways to connect to self-compassion is to get in touch with the feelings you have for someone you care about, like your friend, your child, or another family member you love.
What would you say to them if they were feeling and thinking the things you are experiencing? Would you say to your friend “You are such an idiot!” Would you tell her “You are broken! You will never get this right!” These are abusive and demeaning phrases that you would not say to someone you loved.
When we think of how we would speak to and comfort someone we care about we will find the words that we absolutely need to say to ourselves.
So this is what you do next. Imagine your friend standing in front of you. Imagine how you feel about her and what you say to her to give her comfort and reassurance. See yourself being kind to her. Now, give that same kindness to yourself!
It might just feel like you are speaking off a script the first couple of times you try it. That’s okay because you are breaking a habit. What comes naturally to you is the knee-jerk harshness of the inner critic. Just because it feels comfortable or natural does not mean it is correct or good for you.
Just because your compassionate and kind words don’t feel natural doesn’t mean that they are wrong. You are actually retraining your brain, your thoughts, and your feelings to make room for kindness, toward yourself.
You are learning a new skill.
That’s the basic self-compassion formula, except for one last step.
- Don’t be critical about being critical.
Notice as you try to be more self-compassionate, that you will hear the voice of your critic, judging you on how well you are doing (compared to others) or even more likely just outright telling you how bad you are failing at it.
This stuff is hard. It’s like swimming against the river current of your brain’s old way of thinking.
Now is the time for another dose of self-compassion.
You probably have been self-critical for years with the mistaken belief that you must stay that way or fail in your life. This is false thinking and it will take time to change this habit. So, when you notice the critic criticizing your criticizing- take a deep breath.
You are not alone. Everyone is struggling with this.
We cannot yell at our inner critic and hope to shut her up. But you can:
- Be mindful of your feelings
- Recognize your inner critic’s voice
- Stay neutral
- Answer some important questions
- Remember you’re part of a bigger whole
- Flip the frame
- Don’t be critical about being critical
It seems like a lot, but these steps and exercise build on each other and happen in a matter of moments. Simply choosing to start being self-compassionate is the hardest part! I hope this post has helped you remember that you’re worth it, that you deserve compassion.
Remember, I’m here to help you take care of you!
Please share your thoughts and feelings below and don’t hesitate to visit our forum to continue the discussion!