Everyday life is full of challenges and sometimes we fail at something that is very significant for us whether it is in relationships, at work or study. These moments are incredibly painful. What do you say to yourself when you encounter adversity, make a mistake or perhaps say something that may embarrass you? Are you forgiving or do you go on and on criticising yourself? How is this leaving you feeling?
Self-criticism is something that I come across in clinical work all the time regardless of the difficulties clients bring to the sessions. Therefore, I wanted to dedicate this blog post to looking at how to shrink the Inner Critic and move from self-criticism to becoming self-compassionate and leading a happier life.
Self-criticism eats away happiness
All of us have times when we are not happy about our performance or behaviour and wished that we would have done something differently. If you find yourself constantly criticising yourself and blaming self for failing and not being good enough, this can have a detrimental impact on your mood and psychological well-being. The Inner Critic may say: “you never get it right”, “you always fail, you are not good enough”, “why did you have to say that?” or “you never learn…”.
Being self-critical can contribute to anxiety levels and you being fearful that others might criticise or judge you in a similar way to yourself. This may lead to you feeling particularly anxious in social situations (Werner et al. 2012). You may even feel so anxious that it stops you from achieving your life goals, which again is likely to lead to more self-criticism.
Negative self-talk is likely make you feel worse about yourself and contributing to low mood (Klein, Harding, Taylor, & Dickstein, 1988). As a result, you may engage in behaviours that make you feel even worse about yourself, such as self-sabotaging relationships, underperforming at work or self-medicating with food or other substances. This in turn can leave you feeling ashamed and depressed, which then leads to more self-criticism. Over time your general well-being is under threat by the Inner Critic constantly niggling away your self-esteem and happiness in life.
When we fail at something, it is good to take stock and analyse what went wrong, so that we can prevent it from happening again and learn from the situation. However, this critical evaluation of the situation does not involve repeatedly attacking ourselves in our internal dialogue.
Having high standards for self
Aiming for perfection and having very high standards for self underlie self-criticism (Bergner, 1995). Setting high standards for work, for example, pays off and it is what we get paid for, but there are times when all of us fail: we get it wrong or forget to do something. If you aim to be perfect, it is likely that you get disappointed at some point.
Similarly, relationships require constant negotiation and it is likely that we get it wrong and some relationships end regardless of the effort put into them. The Inner Critic may be fuelled by a break up or a divorce.
Many people criticise themselves for something that is not even noticed by others as they compare themselves against imagined standards or someone else. All of us have our unique set of abilities and capabilities to do different things. Therefore, comparing yourself against someone else who has a different set of abilities or qualities is not fair on yourself.
Do you find yourself setting higher standards for yourself than for others? “I should be perfect” – statements in your internal dialogue and trying to reach very high or even impossible goals are likely to make you feel on edge all the time and blaming yourself for not reaching the standard. You may stop trying to reach your goal for fear of failing. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that all we can ever do is “good enough”.
What is self-compassion?
” Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Louise L. Hay
If self-criticism hasn’t got you where you wanted and even contributed to you feeling unhappy, anxious and/or depressed, it is time to try something different. Learning to become more accepting of yourself “with warts and all” can help you to feel happier not just about yourself but with life in general.
Compassion is composed of three different parts (Barnard & Curry, 2011; Neff, 2016).
Kindness. Self-compassion is about being understanding and kind to oneself when experiencing difficulties. Self-compassionate people understand that distress, failing and being imperfect are part of life and they are able to be kind to themselves when faced with painful experiences. They do not get angry at themselves for not meeting their personal standards. Imagine a close friend having difficulties in his/her relationships or at work, for example. What kind of words of kindness, compassion and encouragement would you give?
Common humanity. Compassionate people see difficulties and suffering as a part of human experience. We all have difficult times in life when we fail or otherwise have painful experiences. At the time it may feel isolating and like we are the only person having that specific difficulty, but in fact there may be many people even in close proximity having the same difficulties. Being self-compassionate involves recognising that we are not alone.
Mindfulness. Self-compassion also requires us becoming aware of our emotions: difficult feelings and emotions are acknowledged and accepted as part of our life. When experiencing something difficult, self-compassionate people engage in self-talk, which might include something like “you are having a really difficult time now” or “it is ok to feel (sad, angry, disappointed…) after what you have experienced”. The thoughts and feelings are allowed to appear without trying to suppress or minimise them.
Assumptions about self-compassion
Do you fear that without criticising yourself your life falls apart and you don’t look after your responsibilities, because you use self-criticism as a way to motivate and push yourself forward? Self-compassion is not about self-indulgence and forgetting your responsibilities. Self-compassion actually allows you to become motivated in a healthier and more positive way by taking ownership of your actions rather trying to motivate in a punitive manner (Neff, 2016). You might even be more motivated as you become more self-compassionate and want to achieve more, because you feel less anxious and more energised for constant self-criticism not consuming your energy levels.
Self-compassion is not about self-pity. It is not about just focusing your own difficulties and being immersed in them. On the contrary, self-compassion recognises that difficulties are a shared human experience and self-compassionate people acknowledge that there are others in a similar situation. Self-compassionate people want to live a happier life which does not involve constantly criticising oneself.
Self-compassion is not self-esteem even if it may seem similar. It does not involve self-evaluation like self-esteem or self-confidence and trying to be better than others to feel good about yourself. Therefore, self-compassion does not fluctuate and is a more stable state of being. It also allows being more aware and in touch with your inner self, because you are allowed to acknowledge those areas of yourself that you may less proud of.
Live a self-compassionate life
Many things in your life time may have contributed to you becoming very self-critical, as a result you may be suffering from anxiety and/ depression (Kannan & Levitt, 2013). At present you may also be having other difficulties, such as:
– past traumatic life experiences are affecting you today (you may be interested in reading this post series on Childhood trauma & recovery here)
– you are unhappy with your body
– you have a complicated relationship with food
– other difficulties
Becoming self-compassionate can help to alleviate the symptoms of your difficulties and the emotional pain you are experiencing. Becoming self-compassionate encourages you to be the real you: accept and love the person you are with many qualities and life experiences.
Becoming aware of your self-critical voice and gradually becoming self-compassionate may seem difficult in the beginning. It is likely that you have practised criticising yourself for many years and adopting a new way of being takes a while. Check yourself when the Inner Critic tries to lift its head and think about how you could support yourself in a self-compassionate way, like you would support a friend. Be patient and allow yourself to change gradually.
Exercise: Keep a diary on critical self-talk (Neff, K., www.Self-compassion.org). Notice the reoccurring themes. Think about how these statements could be changed to be more compassionate. Think about a friend saying these things, how would you express your compassion to them?
FREE Self-compassion guided meditation – Download it here.
Becoming more self-compassionate can change your world and help to live a happier life. Would you like to be able to shrink the Inner Critic and become more self-compassionate? I would love to help you with that. Get in touch to organise your FREE 15 min phone consultation to discuss how therapy could help you.
Neff, K. (2016) www.self-compassion.org
Barnard, L. & Curry, J. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of General Psychology, Vol 15(4), 289-303.