“I’m such a failure”. “I’ll never be good enough… pretty enough… smart enough… thin enough”. “They’re judging me”, “they think I’m stupid”. “What is wrong with me – I can’t do anything right!”
Now, if you are a human reading this (which I assume you are), I expect that at some point you have said a version of the above to yourself. Although this “self-talk” comes in different variations, shapes and sizes, it comes from the same place – our own personal “Inner Critic”.
We all have an inner critic. I recall that mine felt the loudest going through University, but then it decided to peak with the classic “Imposter Syndrome” that troubles many of us new grads in our first year out of University.
Now, don’t get me wrong, my inner critic still has its days where it’s incredibly loud and intolerable – I’m only human after all – but I’ve found ways to deal with it and I’d love to share them with you!
Now, this does not mean that we can ever silence or “delete” this inner voice, but we can learn to respond to it in new ways that help us cope with this sometimes-nasty voice.
Remember, we all do things for a reason and our inner critic has its own reasons too. Take a second to recall all the things your inner critic says to you. . . . . . .
I assume that most, if not all critical comments are centred around things that are important to you. There is purpose to our inner critic – I like to think of it as an overly helpful friend that attempts to get you more of what you want (i.e., success, social acceptance) and helps you avoid what you don’t want (i.e., failure, rejection). It just has an unhelpful way of saying it.
Like I said, we wouldn’t want to turn this switch off, because then we likely wouldn’t care about the things that make life meaningful. But, there is an alternative way we can respond to this voice, and this alternative is called self-compassion.
“If your compassion does not include yourself, then it is incomplete”- Jack Kornfield.
What is self-compassion?
Acting self-compassionately is no different to having compassion towards another. Take a moment to think about how you show compassion towards others…
First, you must be able to recognise they are suffering and notice how difficult things must be. Compassion is our tendency to feel moved by another’s suffering or experience, feel the desire to be there for them, care for them and to help them ease their suffering.
Finally, when we feel compassion for another, we realise that suffering, failure and imperfection are an unavoidable part of the shared human experience. So why do we find it so darn hard to be compassionate towards ourselves?
We expect a lot from ourselves; more than we would ever expect from another. Self-compassion is a way to deal with this and respond to self-critical talk.
How can I start acting self-compassionately?
- Name and notice your “Inner Critic”.
If you walk around all day beating up on yourself for mistakes, painful experiences and struggles, I can only imagine that you feel pretty worthless.
Knowledge is power. The first step you take toward self-compassion is allowing yourself to be open to recognising when you are beating yourself up.
It can sometimes help to give your critic a name to allow you to get some distance from it, because with distance comes objectivity. An example of this might be to recall a fictional character who has a tendency to be critical toward others or to themselves. We can have some fun with this one – for example, naming your self-critic a critical or “judgy” character from a movie like “Mean Girls” or TV series like “Gossip Girl” is likely to allow you to quickly name and notice your critic while buying you some time to respond to it in a new way, rather than getting completely consumed by it.
- But DON’T “name and shame it”.
This one is simple – If you respond to your inner critic with further criticism or beat yourself up for beating yourself up, are you really acting self-compassionately? Probably not. Notice and name it, but don’t reward criticism with criticism – it’s likely to get you nowhere.
- You are only human – would it hurt to forgive yourself?
Here we are everyday criticising ourselves and expecting much more of ourselves than we would ever expect of another human being. But what makes it okay to expect more of yourself than anyone else?
If you wouldn’t say that to a friend (or stranger) what makes it okay to say it to yourself? You are only human after all. Yes, we are all unique in our own way and have our own unique experiences and battles, but we are all human, and fortunately this sameness means we all make mistakes – not just you!
Our inner critic is often very unforgiving and uses any opportunity it can to attack us or criticise. It pits us off against others often comparing us and making us think we are less worthwhile than the next person.
Conversely, self-compassion and forgiveness allows us to see ourselves as what we are – humans who make mistakes. Forgiveness allows us to learn how to change; it allows us to be open to our mistakes and to learn from them.
- Think of yourself as a friend.
You will never speak to anyone more than you speak to yourself in your head. Scary, right? So you might as well speak nicely or you’re in for a rough ride.
Take a moment to think about how you would support a close friend when they are really struggling or feeling down about themselves. What would you do or say to this friend? What tone would you use? How would you treat your friend?
Now, take a moment to recall how you treat yourself when you are struggling or feeling bad about yourself? How do you talk to yourself? What do you say? What tone do you use?
Did you notice a difference? If so, ask yourself why. What factors come into play that allow you to treat yourself different to the way you would a close friend? What do you think might change if you responded to yourself like you would a friend?
“You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked, try approving of yourself and see what happens” – Louise L. Hay.
- Give yourself small acts of compassion.
Being self-compassionate is not easy, particularly when you have spent countless years criticising yourself, so start small.
For example, reading this article is a small step toward acting self-compassionately. Why I hear you ask? Because a part of you believed that you were worthwhile enough to deserve to read something about self-kindness.
Think of ways you can “spritz” small acts of self-kindness into your day. Again, think of how you would treat a friend.
- Responding with self-compassion rather than self-criticism doesn’t mean you will fail or be less successful.
“But my inner critic pushes me to get things done; I wouldn’t be successful if I didn’t criticise myself” – Many of us.
Often, people think that if they treat themselves with kindness, they will lack the motivation and determination to meet their goals and succeed.
However, research tells us that self-compassion has been linked to self-growth and improvement as people allow themselves to learn from mistakes and thus work toward improvement and success.
In contrast, high levels of self-criticism have been associated with procrastination, increased stress, self-pity, depression, anxiety and rumination – none of which are useful to help motivate you to reach your goals and aspire toward success!
- Practice, practice, practice!
Self-compassion can be a difficult skill to implement because many of us have always responded to ourselves with criticism rather than kindness. Self-compassion is a skill that needs to be practiced every day.
There will be days where your inner critic is hard to “unhook from”, but that just means you’re human. It does not mean you have failed in the art of self-compassion; it just means you might be having a tough day.
After all, it’s sometimes harder to be kind to others when we’re having a bad day so it’s normal to experience the same difficulty when acting kindly to yourself on your bad days. Forgive yourself and remember that tomorrow is a new day.
Psychologists can also be helpful to utilise to help build self-compassion. Yes, we have the “textbook knowledge” and experience in working with these issues that is necessary to help build your toolkit, but we also understand and appreciate that acting self-compassionately can often be difficult when you are used to being self-critical.