“Idiot!” I mutter accusingly under my breath. There’s no one else in the room apart from my cat, but in my eyes she could never do any wrong. No, this insult was directed at one person, and one person only – myself. I had just walked into the kitchen to discover last night’s leftover dinner sitting on the stovetop, unrefrigerated and unfortunately now inedible. The leftovers were intended to cover tonight’s dinner, in anticipation of a busy and tiring day at work ahead. I could hear my mind starting to ramp-up the self-criticism, picking at my insecurities; “you’re so forgetful!”. My body tenses with every catastrophizing thought; “you’ll have to buy dinner… at this rate you’ll never be able to afford buying a house!”. In a matter of minutes, I go from waking up with a smile at the early sunrise, hopeful about the day’s prospects, to a grumpier, dissatisfied and all around more difficult version of myself. Surely enough, I proceed to criticize myself for being irritated by the incident in the first place, too. Layer upon layer of self-criticism banks up before me. And all because I forgot to put the leftovers in the fridge.
Fortunately, I’m able to forget about the morning’s trials and tribulations by throwing myself into my work. However, this is not without a healthy dose of self-reflection first. I know that when my partner leaves leftovers out overnight, I might feel a little twang of disappointment for the food waste, but generally remain unaffected, reassuring them that it’s no problem and we will be fine to cook again or order take-away. So why is it so hard to allow ourselves the same lee-way?
Why are we so hard on ourselves?
It’s normal, and actually important for us to feel some discomfort when plans go awry. This means our brains are working well, and activating our threat and survival responses appropriately – thanks Brain! We need to feel some discomfort in order to know when a situation is not healthy or adaptive for us, and subsequently muster up the motivation to remove ourselves from any danger, or change our pattern of behaviour for next time. Although this discomfort is, of course, unpleasant, it is natural, and we can increase our tolerance of such emotions and sensations with practice.
The real clincher is when we notice this discomfort, and instead of offering ourselves compassion, like we would our partners, friends, family or even strangers, we tend to instead opt for self-criticism. This makes sense as a coping strategy from our brain’s perspective – it’s trying to tell us what we’ve done wrong over and over again, so we stop doing it and can be safer next time! However, this unfortunately isn’t how it works. Harsh self-criticism only adds insult to injury. If the initial discomfort at seeing my forgotten leftovers were a puddle of mud, so to speak, then my self-critical statements could be described as someone jumping around in that mud, splashing it everywhere, indoors, and on new, clean carpet. This is the layering effect of self-criticism, it adds threat and fear to our already injured and hurting states of being, and when practiced regularly, can leave us feeling low, irritated, frustrated, anxious, ashamed or guilty.
You might be asking, ‘but what real danger comes from self-criticism?’ Although the full answer may be complicated, one thing appears clear: when we criticize ourselves, we are putting our self-esteem, confidence and sense of self in danger. We often criticize ourselves when our actions aren’t in line with our expectations for ourselves, or our values. Some of us may be more likely to engage in self-critical thought patterns if we’ve experienced criticism from others in the past, internalizing these insults and using them against ourselves in an attempt to prevent further social rupture in future. Self-critical tendencies can also come from any number of different cultural or social factors, life events or conflicts across our lifetimes.
When we learn these paths of self-criticism, they often become the easiest path to walk down – the path of least resistance. This isn’t our fault, it’s simply our brain trying to keep us alert to any ongoing dangers. And the good news is, there are ways to start reducing our self-blame, and start treading down a new pathway in the brain! And trust me when I say that the views from self-compassionate pathways are much nicer, and much more expansive.
What’s the alternative to self-criticism, and why is it so important?
The alternative to self-criticism is self-compassion, or at the very least, neutral self-reflections. Understandably, it can feel like a completely foreign concept for many of us, especially in this society where many of us are taught to put ourselves down in the pursuit of appearing humble. However, as humans, we require a certain amount of compassion and care from both others and ourselves, to balance out our threat system, and to help us return to a sense of safety following real or imagined danger. Moreover, self-compassion has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and improve resilience and life satisfaction, among many other positive outcomes.
Kristin Neff, a lead researcher in the field, describes the practice of self-compassion as being no different to having compassion, care and understanding for others. Compassion for others means acknowledging the person’s pain, feeling moved to help or support them, and appreciating that mistakes and failure are normal, shared human experiences. Thus, Kristin Neff suggests three main steps to offering ourselves this same compassionate experience:
- Rather than ignoring or trying to push it away, we can practice noticing and acknowledging our own suffering.
- Instead of judging ourselves harshly, we can approach our painful feelings with curiosity, care, and the genuine desire to understand and/or help ourselves cope.
- Remind ourselves that we are not isolated or alone in our suffering, and that our pain does not make us any less worthy, but in fact makes us human – perfectly imperfect.
How can I start practicing self-compassion?
A great place to start when learning to practice self-compassion or more neutral self-reflections, is to think about how you might start practicing mindfulness in a form that works for you. This is to help us build skills in noticing when our negative, self-critical thoughts are getting away from us. We recommend linking in with a psychologist for support with clinical mindfulness techniques, but you can start learning more about this popular practice here. Next, and equally important, is to consider how you might compassionately respond to a friend, a child, a loved one or even an innocent bystander in your position. Consider, for example, what kind of body language or tone of voice might you use to respond to this person’s suffering? You might then think about how to practice relating and speaking to yourself in the same way. Finally, we must consider the content of our compassionate self-responding, by calling out negative thoughts, and reflecting on what might be more helpful to offer support to ourselves in the moment. And remember, if being self-compassionate feels like too much of a stretch, even taking a moment to imagine what it might feel like can have positive effects on our mental health!
Small steps, everyday
I return home from work later in the evening, noticing the slowly rising frustration with myself for not having tonight’s dinner ready. Judgmental thoughts around forgetfulness, finances and effort start swirling around in my mind. This time, instead of leaning into the self-criticism, I try to lean into my self-compassion skills and mentally coach myself:
‘Beth, it must have been disappointing realizing your meal was left out overnight. I can see your brain is trying to criticize you for this mistake, and doubly for feeling down about it! That’s understandable, it’s just trying to help, but there isn’t any danger here to fear. It’s okay to forget these things sometimes, you’re only human. Perhaps you can put some music on and see if you can use this time cooking as a mindful break from work, or if you’re too tired, that’s okay too. Ordering in take-away tonight won’t determine your entire future. You’re doing a great job keeping up with everything, and it’s okay to listen in to what you need tonight.’
I rehearse these statements a few times over, being careful to use a gentler tone of voice than earlier in the day, and trying to relax my shoulders as I do so. I realise I start to feel a little more grounded, a little safer, and a little more capable of moving on with my night, without snapping at my partner or throwing away all future hopes and aspirations.
Getting support, to give support
Self-compassion helps both ourselves and those around us, with wide-reaching effects on wellbeing. Kristin Neff’s website has some great tips and practices to get you started. For more tailored strategies for increasing self-compassion, mindfulness skills, or support with emotion regulation more broadly, you can book in to see one of our psychologists experienced in Compassion Focused Therapy and Mindfulness-based Approaches.
We’re here to help you be kinder to yourself!