Quieting My Self-Critic

Much has been written about the benefits of compassion. Compassion is the emotion that we feel in response to the suffering of others that motivates us to help. Its derivation comes from Latin and it literally means to suffer together with. It is considered to be an adaptively evolved trait as it is essential for human survival (“survival of the kindest”) and has been linked to enhanced physical as well as emotional well-being. Self-compassion is no different except that the recipient is oneself. Instead of reacting to our mistakes, imperfections and disappointments by castigating ourselves, it involves giving ourselves the kindness, understanding and compassion that we would instinctively give a loved one who was in pain. While pain is an inevitable part of life, suffering is characterized by pain and resistance to pain, in other words, fighting vs accepting reality.

Kristen Neff, Ph.D., research psychologist and pioneer in this field, has identified three components of self-compassion. The first is mindfulness which involves being aware of our experiences, in the present moment, without judgement. Instead of being hijacked by our emotions, mindfulness allows us to be curious and open to them (in DBT-speak, “wise-mind”). It means paying attention to “self-talk”, that is, what we are actually saying to ourselves. The second component is common humanity which is an acknowledgment of the imperfections of being human. Whereas unfavorable comparisons with others tend to result in feelings of isolation and estrangement, the recognition that all human beings are fallible helps to foster social interaction and connection with others. Lastly, self-compassion involves self-kindness, acceptance and comfort in response to painful emotions as opposed to self-criticism and judgement.

Self-esteem has long been regarded as the key to personal well-being. However, it is inherently unstable because it is based on social comparisons and fleeting accomplishments (i.e., the “Lake Wobegan effect” where all children are above average). Many people believe that self-criticism is an effective motivator but it is actually correlated with depression. Whatever motivation that derives from it tends to emanate from a fear of being worthless. Motivation with self-compassion comes from a desire for health and well-being. Personal goals and standards are just as high but the greater acceptance of failing short increases the likelihood of trying again. Self-compassion has been linked to reductions in anxiety, depression, stress, rumination, perfectionism, body shame and fear of failure. Conversely, it has been associated with increases in life satisfaction, happiness, self-confidence, optimism, curiosity, creativity and gratitude.

In May 2011, I attended a two-day training on Self-Compassion, conducted by Kristen Neff, Ph.D. and Christopher Germer, Ph.D., both authors of books on the subject. It was a powerful experience, not only because of its relevance to my work with male addicts and alcoholics, but also to my personal sense of well-being (or lack thereof). I had always been self-critical and perfectionistic but had never reflected on this as something that could change. In response to my relentless self-blame, guilt and criticism, my former husband once commented that it was a good thing that I didn’t live in prehistoric times because I would have blamed myself for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Two weeks after attended the conference, I flew to Baltimore for a family wedding. After being picked up at the airport, I looked for my prescription sunglasses, which I knew that I had with me on the plane. They were nowhere to be found. My self-critical voice was activated immediately, saying: “I can’t believe I lost them. I’m such an idiot! I lose things all the time! I’m such a hypocrite! I teach mindfulness but I am totally mindless.”

You get the idea. Then, I suddenly became aware of how harshly I was treating myself. I took a few deep breaths and said to myself, “I know that it is painful for me when I lose things but beating myself up will not bring back the sunglasses. It will just make me miserable. I will call the airline when I get to the hotel and see if anyone found it. I need to forgive myself because I’m human and everyone makes mistakes.” The “old self-critical me” would have spent the entire weekend ruminating about the sunglasses, berating myself repeatedly and feeling upset with myself. Acknowledgement of the emotional pain and challenging my inner critic enabled me to be more present and enjoy the weekend.

I have been facilitating a self-compassion group on my unit for clients who struggle with addiction. One man shared that he had bought his son a cell phone and while in jail, he learned that his son was murdered over it. Since then, he had been tormented by self-blame which he believed he deserved. It never occurred to him that he could choose to be comforting and kind to himself.

When I make mistakes now, my self-critical voice still tends to be my default mode, but it is no longer on “autopilot”. Sometimes, I am my own coach or cheerleader, validating my painful feelings rather than intensifying them with a harsh diatribe. I have become a self-compassion zealot with my clients, friends and family members because I want them to reap the benefits as I have. If you struggle with a relentless inner critic I hope you that you can as well.