Stop attacking yourself with self-criticism

There is no need to tear yourselves apart in an effort to be your best

Man critcising himself

If you are like many people, you try to understand why you do what you do. While this has the potential of being helpful, it can also be self-destructive.

Those who swear by the benefits of being self-critical often don’t realise the long-term negative effects of it. On the other hand, there are many who grow and even thrive on having a critical eye that’s focussed inward—but in a self-compassionate rather than self-critical way. The difference between these two kinds of people is in how they approach themselves and their performance.

How do you assess yourself?

For some people, introspection is a kind of self-autopsy in which they cut open their psyches and look for abnormalities. They inevitably find their flaws or weaknesses because everyone has them. Then they study these human failings under a microscope—and work tirelessly to get rid of them. Of course, this is a process that has no end and can be very demoralising.

Other people approach introspection in a gentler manner. They are curious and accepting as they consider their inner world and how it affects their performance in the outer world. As they endeavour to discern their inner selves more, they are empathetic rather than critical toward their own distress and failings. This compassion naturally motivates them to find their way out of their emotional pain or discomfort while also spurring them on to achieve their goals and to find happiness.

Why self-compassion is better than self-criticism?

Those high in self-compassion ultimately do better than those who are self-critical. Although the search-and-destroy missions of self-critical people are an expedient way to address problems and advance toward goals, they can also be extremely stressful and demoralising. Self-critical people are, in essence, attacking themselves. And when they feel the pain of their self-victimisation, they often respond by further criticising themselves for being weak.

The picture is much more positive for self-compassionate people. They comfort, support and encourage themselves as they acknowledge their imperfections and failures. They are particularly adept at accepting negative feedback and responding in a constructive way by inwardly maintaining a positive sense of themselves while also making corrective changes in their performance.

Which type are you?

Most people fall in the category midway between self-compassion and self-attack. They are sometimes angry and unforgiving about their actions. At other times, they consider their pain with tenderness. But the more they can look perceptively into themselves with a compassionate eye, what I call compassionate self-awareness [I have explained the concept in a 3-minute video embedded below], the stronger they feel about facing their tribulations and the more resilient they are toward self-improvement.

Learn how to look inward with care

Another way to practise self-compassion is to bring your attention and critical thinking to how you respond to particular circumstances. It can help to be conscious of your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Consider the following example of someone working through a situation:

Situation: After beating me in tennis, Lisa kept talking about how she’s better than me, just as she always does.

Self-critical thoughts: She’s right, I’m a loser. I’m no good at tennis or anything else for that matter.

Emotions: Angry with self, angry with Lisa, sad, dejected, frustrated.

Source of thoughts/feelings: I’m really upset about this incident, but I also know that I have a history of feeling like a loser. When I was a kid, I had an undiagnosed learning disability that made attending school really hard. No matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to do well. So I ended up feeling like a failure all the time. The voice I hear in my head now is the same voice I heard as a child.

After identifying all of these parts of your experience, choose to respond to yourself with compassion. This will probably be difficult for you. In this example, you might say, “Okay, I know now why I think I’m a loser, but I should just get over it.”

If this is where you get stuck, I suggest that you consider the following three-step approach to responding gently to your self-criticisms. These steps are:

  1. Understanding your thoughts
  2. Validating your emotions
  3. Providing a sympathetic alternative thought to the emotions you are experiencing.

In the above example of losing the tennis match, this could turn out at follows:

1 Understand your thinking

“Given my childhood experiences, I can understand why I think of myself as a failure. These thoughts and feelings happened so frequently that they become ingrained in me, so it makes sense that I still think this way.”

2 Validate your emotions

“Given my childhood experiences, of course I felt angry with myself, sad and despairing as a child. And, I understand why those same feelings would get triggered when I’m in similar situations now.”

3 Compassionate alternative

“The truth is that I wasn’t a failure as a child—I struggled because of my learning disability. Once I got the help I needed, I did better in school and at a lot of other things, too. Just as I wasn’t a loser back then even though I felt that way, I’m also not a loser now—even when I feel that way.

“As for this situation with Lisa, I need to remember that she was on a team when she was younger and she’s never stopped playing. And I only started playing about a year ago. So, of course she’s better than me at this. But, again, that doesn’t make me a loser. Even if I never get really good at tennis, I have other strengths. I’m really creative, and I know I’m a loyal friend—which is more important to me, anyway.”

After disseminating your thoughts, if you still struggle with finding a considerate response, think about how you would advise a friend. For instance, you could spend some time thinking about people you know who are struggling in some way and allowing yourself to be open to their pain, while wishing them well in your heart. Then you can simply bring your awareness to your own pain or difficulties and practise responding to yourself in the same compassionate manner.

Learning to assess yourself in this compassionate way can be very difficult. So, be patient. Give yourself a chance to work through this process as many times as you need to. It can help to remember the many years that you’ve been self-critical—it’s a well learned way of relating to yourself that will take time and practice to unlearn. But as your self-compassion increases, you will find that you feel better about yourself even as you continue to improve and grow in different areas of your life.

Watch this video on compassionate self-awareness by Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps

A version of this article was first published in the May 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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