Do you give yourself a hard time? Most people do!
We judge ourselves mercilessly about any number of things: our weight, our looks, our career, our work, our body, our relationships, our sex lives, our lack of fitness, our parenting, our children for that matter…our paycheck, our status, our habits, our productivity, our characteristics, our diet, our choices, our home – how many of these can you tick off?
In Western culture, we strive for independence and achievement as if they will gain us medals. And with the prevalence of social media, it is hard not to descend into ‘comparison-itis’ – judging other people’s best bits to our worst bits. But this can be a recipe for disaster for our mental health: when we feel like we are not matching up, we become stuck in unhappiness, depression even, or we can feel like something is missing in our lives and blame ourselves.
Unfortunately, most people think their inner critic will somehow motivate them to be a ‘better person’…if only we were more disciplined, had more willpower, or worked harder, we could get closer to our ideal, but we are looking for happiness in the wrong places. The pursuit of perfectionism is an unhappy and futile activity.
In fact, when we focus on our perceived failures, we spiral into negative-thinking and our brain reacts as if we are in danger, and our bodies create a cascade of physiological effects that enable us for fight or flight. While this was a fit for purpose survival mechanism for our ancestors – and still is for us when we’re in real physical danger – nowadays our own thoughts can be enough to kick off this stress response.
So what can we do? We need to start coming to this problem from the entirely opposite angle: by letting go of judgment, and with self kindness, self compassion and ultimately, working towards self acceptance. As Louise Hay said, “You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”
To someone who tends to be self critical, accepting yourself might sound impossible, but it is a journey, and there is plenty of research to show that practising self compassion can really get you on this path.
Compassion, which literally means ‘to suffer with’ is often viewed as a commendable trait, yet compassion for the self is often viewed as indulgent, or self pitying. It is neither.
- Self compassion is simply accepting ourselves as we are right now, warts and all. From this place of acceptance, real change can take place.
- Self compassion is about recognising this suffering – through mindfulness – that we are embodying this human experience – with all its difficulties and flaws and disappointments.
- Self compassion is about caring for yourself in that moment, actively giving yourself warmth and affection.
Softening this harsh inner critic does take some work, but it widens our perspective of our thoughts and enables us to view issues from a place of wisdom. On 1 June, I am running a free challenge called ‘Befriend Your Inner Critic…in 5 days’ that takes this journey step by step.
To work with our inner critic, first we need to understand it (Day 1). We explore the inner working of our minds, and where this belief has come from that we need to be hard on ourselves. Then, through mindfulness, we can begin to recognise (Day 2) our negative self judgments. This step can be so illuminating – the scale of self criticism that we subject ourselves to, and the amount of time it takes up. Soothing our inner critic (Day 3) is about actively giving ourselves kindness so we can allow difficult feelings to ‘be’- as ignoring, distracting from or pushing them away do not help them to dissipate. Then we learn how to challenge the critic (Day 4) – literally taking one thought at a time and viewing it with wise discrimination. And finally, transcending it (Day 5) by replacing the bad habit with healthy ones: gratitude, savouring and self appreciation, that all work to offset the natural negativity bias.
I have seen how powerful these steps can be and what an impact these practices make in people’s lives. Please join me on my challenge by signing up at befriendyourinnercritic.org, but if you’re reading this after 1 June, please contact me and I can direct you to some really useful courses and further reading. Anything by Kristin Neff, Tara Brach, Christopher Germer and Paul Gilbert is a great start. Wishing you a fresh start through self compassion.
A wealth of practices and Research on Self Compassion can be found at Kristin Neff’s site: self-compassion.org
Sign up at befriendyourinnercritic.org for the free 5 day challenge.
Jessica’s Mindfulness and self compassion practices are available on soundcloud.com/user-161229301