In the west, we almost uniformly believe that being self-critical will make us work harder, perform better, and turn us into much-improved people. But what the scientific data show is that judging ourselves harshly and beating up on ourselves actually makes us weaker in the face of failure, more emotionally reactive, and less likely to get the lessons we need to learn from our failures. We increase our levels of stress, anxiety, shame, and depression. These then position us for a second tier of suffering: feeling isolated from others, feeling insecure or inadequate. Never mind the disturbed sleep, poor concentration, and less-than-stellar coping strategies, from binge eating to excessive drinking. Ack.
Imagine telling a child, “You’re such a loser.” Or raging at a friend, “you’re a stupid jerk.” Most of us don’t behave that way and intuitively understand why: it’s psychologically harmful and doesn’t lead to lasting change. And yet, we wouldn’t hesitate to talk to ourselves that way.
Our Ever-Amusing Brain
But consider this: Our brain can’t distinguish between an external threat and our own self-critical voice. When we talk trash to ourselves we become both the attacker and the attacked.
Just like under an external attack, we go into a ‘fight-or flight’ stress response. Which douses us in a stew of stress hormones that shut down all but our most necessary bodily mechanisms for survival. To fight the threat, we may beat up on ourselves; to flee it, we might numb out with excessive distractions; we might freeze in the face of the threat through rumination—rerunning endless loops of our inadequacies; or, submit to the threat by admitting we really are that awful after all. How could anyone be productive or perform at his or her best under those conditions? Never mind feeling happy or well.
For any one of us to grow and become more like our better self requires experimentation, trial and error. So what happens when we fall short? Or experience fear or frustration because of our own shortcomings?
There’s an impressive and growing body of research that shows that the antidote to harsh self-criticism is self-compassion: the act of turning kindness toward ourselves when we’ve failed or see some part of ourselves we don’t like. This might be obvious to you—or sound positively New Agey. Or, you might be asking, hey, when we mess up, don’t we deserve to be punished?
But I Effed Up....
Held accountable, yes. Punished, no. It’s a fine distinction, but one that’s worthy of parsing out. At the heart of self-compassion is the idea that we are worthy of care and respect, despite the unavoidable fact that to be human means we’re also flawed. Humans make mistakes--it’s pretty much written into the job description. But how we treat the fact of our shortcomings determines how quickly or easily we move through our challenges and failures, learn important lessons, make amends as needed, and move on.
Pioneering researcher and psychologist in the field of self-compassion, Kristin Neff, says that people frequently resist offering kindness to themselves because they think such behavior will let them off the hook—that self-judgment (the punishment) is actually the thing that keeps them in line. People also resist offering kindness to themselves for of appearing weak, self-indulgent, self-pitying, or self-absorbed.
But actually, research shows the opposite is true. It turns out that self-judgment actually distorts reality, which leads to self-pitying thoughts and their attendant storylines. Self-compassionate people, on the other hand, tend to be more reflective, asking of themselves how they could be more skillful in the future and have done a better job in the past. Their guilt or remorse is equal to the deed—and they tend to apologize when they’ve wronged others. But they also feel more optimism and hope because they feel a sense of their own agency.
What’s not to love?
The Push-Back to Pesky Perfectionism
The research clearly shows that self-compassion is a generative process, a prescription for motivation, and an antidote for perfectionism. When we know we’re on our own side, we’re willing to take more risks, have big dreams, and be less immobilized by fear of failure. We come to trust that whatever struggles and imperfections we have, and whatever mistakes we make, it’s all grist for the mill. We’ll be okay.
The good news is that anyone can develop a practice of self-compassion. Neff created “The Self-Compassion Break,” a portable, straightforward practice that takes just minutes to do. It’s worth a listen:
Self-compassion has its roots in Buddhist scholarship. In fact, Neff was introduced to the concept when she took up the study of meditation during a difficult marital break-up. Like meditation, which relies on mindfulness—being aware of what’s happening in the moment—we first need to notice that we’re being self-judging or ruminating on our failings. Then, we interrupt those voices and replace them with fitting words of kindness instead. “That was really awful. These things happen. You’re gonna be okay.”
We can ask ourselves questions like, “what might a kind friend say instead?” Or, “if this happened to someone I love, what would I advise…?” We can even offer honest statements, such as, “I feel sad when I hear you talk to yourself that way.” It’s even possibly worthwhile to keep a list on hand of go-to phrases for when that self-critical voice comes up in the future.
While this may seem contrived at first, or difficult to muster, it becomes easier and faster over time because we actually wire our brain for self-acceptance—it becomes a habit. The practice goes one step further than mindfulness. It requires that we learn to self-soothe by embracing ourselves—both literally and figuratively—with warmth and tenderness when we suffer a painful experience, even when we’re the source of it. Just as the brain can’t distinguish the difference between a threat that comes from within or without, so too the brain can’t tell if it’s our own touch or someone else’s.
As mammals we’re wired for touch—it’s part of the mammalian care-giving system, which mends, restores, and signals to us that we’re not alone. Touch produces oxytocin, one of the brain’s “happy” hormones. Also known as “the love hormone,” oxytocin is released through cuddling, but also when people bond socially. It downright feels good while also lowering our cortisol levels—one of the hormones released during stress. We feel calm and more relaxed; we feel more positive, and can see the bigger picture; we see ourselves as we are: fallible, but worthy.
One Caveat for the Highly Self-Critical
It’s a self-compassion practice. It’s probable we’ll fail along the way. Neff likes to point out that people sometimes beat up on themselves for failing to stop beating up on themselves: “You can’t even get this right.” The point is to notice even that; to gently interrupt, to be kind to ourselves even then. Essentially, we practice to get better at practicing.
Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.” Self-compassion is a doorway into self-acceptance. And self-acceptance is a foundation for success at anything that requires risk. We will fail, humans do. But we can give ourselves a tender, respectful, fighting chance.
The Self-Compassion Break: A How To
1) Notice that you’re experiencing a moment of difficulty, and gently interrupt it
2) Place your hands on your heart, or arms folded across your chest and give a
squeeze of other comforting gesture, feeling the warmth and weight of
3) Say to yourself some version of the following:
--This is a moment of difficulty….
--Everyone experiences difficulties as a part of life….
--I’m going to be kind to myself in this moment….
For the final step, ask yourself, what do I need to hear? Let the answer bubble up. Offer a
word of encouragement, endearment, or earnest support. It could be something like:
4) “That was really rough. You did your best. I applaud your courage.”
When to Use
1. When we’re being hard on ourselves
2. When we feel rejected
3. When we see something we don’t like about ourselves
Want to dig deeper?
Kristin Neff: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
Christopher Germer: The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from
Destructive Thoughts and Emotions