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Healing your inner critic with self-compassion

Have you ever noticed how you are criticizing yourself on a constant basis? I certainly have a whole list of self-critical thoughts. "I don't do enough sports; I am not efficient; I should not have said this; why can't I switch off?" and so on.

Thoughts like this are automatic and unconscious. They just pop out of nowhere, they are very convincing, and we are often not even aware of them. Even if we have learnt, (for example, in a mindfulness class), to see thoughts not as facts but simply as mental events that come and go like clouds in the sky, we very often take it for the truth what our inner voice is telling us. As our inner critic is so convincing, we quickly come to believe that something is wrong with us.

These types of self-critical statements can be detrimental to your well-being. They put you down and make you feel small. Furthermore, research shows that they can contribute to feelings of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion.

We all talk to ourselves continuously. Most of this "self-talk" is unconscious, but it impacts our feelings, thoughts, and actions. We are often much more critical and harsh on ourselves than on others. It is like a little voice continuously judging and criticizing what we are doing, that it is never good enough.

Often the origin of this perception of not being good enough is to be found in the past, as we internalize the kind of talk we hear from our parents and caregivers. We might have been expected to be "perfect", or to "try harder", or perhaps only success really mattered rather than the effort we put into a task (even if we "failed" in the end). If this was the case growing up, then we often expect from ourselves the same perfectionism and success once we are adults.

We push ourselves to do our best and criticize ourselves harshly if we "fail" or don't reach our wildest dreams. We usually think that we simply are not good enough or have not tried hard enough. We don't even notice how exhausting this is - until we crash.

Participants in our courses report that one of the most fundamentally transformative practices they learnt in a mindfulness course has been practicing kindness towards themselves.

But is self-compassion not egoistic? Why would it be good to be on your own side? There are several reasons why being kind to yourself is important:

  1. All beings deserve decency and care - including you.
  2. You are responsible for your future self. 
  3. It is important for your own wellbeing and health. Research shows that being kind to yourself boosts your resilience and well-being.
  4. It is good for others to be good to yourself. If you are happy and fulfilled you will become a better and kinder person to others. Therefore it is an act of kindness towards others to take good care of your own happiness and well-being.

So how can you become kinder to yourself?

In practicing self-compassion we respond to our pain or suffering or to difficult emotions in the same way we would hope to be treated by a good friend: with love, understanding, and support.

Self-compassion is not selfish or egocentric, it is also not self-pity. Self-compassion is about noticing when we are suffering and being kind to ourselves in return. We don't practice self-compassion to feel better, so we don't aim at changing anything, but we practice it because we are having a hard time right now.

A lot of research has been done about the practice of self-compassion, and it has been shown that it can decrease the amount and duration of our difficult emotion. We gain more perspective on what is going on and keep the bigger picture in mind. It also leads to more kindness towards others, as self-kindness is a prerequisite for treating others kindly. The sooner we can get to a place of acceptance and forgiveness, the sooner we will be able to refocus our attention back to the present moment.

According to self-compassion teacher Kristin Neff, self-compassion is formed of 3 concepts

  1. Paying Attention = Mindfulness. In our mindfulness courses we learn to experience emotions in the body rather than analysing them. An important aspect of becoming aware of our feelings is to simply notice them without judgment or trying to alter them. Research has shown that being aware of your feelings and physical experience is beneficial for your well-being.
  2. Common Humanity: None of us are alone with our struggles, because there may be other people nearby having similar difficulties. We acknowledge that suffering and pain are part of human life. Therefore, self-compassion is about seeing your suffering as a universal experience and not as a personal one.
  3. Kindness: This is about the words and tone of voice we use with ourselves. When we are in moments of difficulty, instead of judging ourselves we can be understanding and kind. We soothe and reassure ourselves just as we might soothe or support a dear friend in trouble.

Self-compassion does not come naturally, but the good news is that it can be learnt like any other skill. You just need to practice it regularly. It may feel a bit awkward at first, but with practice it will feel more and more natural.

The first thing you need to learn when something difficult is emerging, is to pause, then turn towards the pain and acknowledge it, "this is really difficult right now," realizing that difficulty and pain are a part of life (for example, "I am not alone. Other people experience the same stress/pain/struggle."). Then finally ask yourself, "How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?" You may want to say something like, "may I be strong," "may I be patient with myself," or "may I accept myself the way I am." Let these kind words sink in and stay with them for several breaths.

You can also practice a longer meditation to strengthen your self-compassion, for example with this loving kindness meditation