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If you were to go on a journey with someone for several decades, how important would the relationship between the two of you be?
Wouldn’t you make an effort to ensure you got along well? Wouldn’t you want to make sure the relationship between the two of you was positive and supportive?
The journey of life, the one we’re all on right now, isn’t so different from that hypothetical journey. Except rather than spending time with another person, our constant companion is the voice inside our heads. But for many of us, the relationship between ourselves and that voice isn’t so positive.
“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha
Self-criticism is a common problem, and not one to be overlooked: the way you talk to yourself plays a vital role in well-being. Luckily, the problem of the harsh self-critic is fixable. This article offers five ways to help you overcome your inner critic by strengthening your self-compassion.
This Article Contains:
The Relationship With Ourselves
Growing up, people are conditioned by their parents or the people who look after them in childhood. Children model themselves after their caretakers. Depending on which values the caretakers live by, children are likely to adopt the same ones as a blueprint for understanding the world.
“How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.” – Rupi Kaur
Values are a collection of guiding principles, and they determine what people deem to be correct and desirable in life (Schwartz, 1992). People use values as a subconscious scoring rubric through which they assess others and themselves in terms of worth and ideals. For instance, values such as responsibility, openness, and respect have the tendency to strengthen relationships and provide a basis for well-being and creativity.
Depending on one’s environment and the values he or she was taught growing up, a person will develop an inner guiding voice, and there is a tendency for it to be harshly self-critical.
People take the values they grew up with (such as performance), and if their perception of themselves does not correlate with their values (e.g., “I did not do well enough” and “I should have done better”), they tend to deem themselves unworthy.
In the long run, our subjective and self-critical perceptions of whether we live up to these values have an impact on our self-worth, which in turn determines whether the voices in our heads are kind and supportive or destructive and devaluing.
Unfortunately, the perception we have of ourselves also influences our behavior. That often means we live out a self-fulfilling prophecy, never measuring up to the “good enough” value.
How Does This Impact Our Well-Being?
Research suggests that people who are socially isolated often actively contribute to their isolation. They’re more likely to hold negative expectations for their treatment by others, and therefore they adopt a prevention rather than promotion focus in their social interactions (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2005).
Hence, insecurity can lead to self-absorbed ruminations rather than performance-enhancing behavior. This is a downward spiral that has a negative impact on a person’s long-term happiness and wellbeing.
Researchers Ed Diener and Martin Seligman (2002) conducted a study of both happy and unhappy people to determine what factors set them apart. It turned out that happy people didn’t necessarily exercise more, participate more often in religious activities, or experience more (subjectively) positive life events. The difference between the groups was that happier people had better social relationships.
This is not surprising, as researchers have consistently proven that humans have a psychological need for belonging. Even more important, however, is the relationship people have with themselves. Our thoughts, particularly the ones involving self-perception, greatly impact our well-being.
An Introduction to Self-Compassion
Rather than trying to change our deeply rooted values–a challenging task–we can start by lessening the impact they have on us by changing the ways in which we view ourselves. We can begin to do this with self-compassion.
Self-compassion means being gentle, kind and understanding with yourself; accepting that you are not perfect; and understanding that there is potential for learning and growth in every mistake you make (Neff, 2003).
“If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others.” – The Dalai Lama
The Buddhist understanding of compassion means offering patience, kindness, and nonjudgmental understanding to others as well as oneself. Contrary to what you might believe, self-compassion is not equivalent to selfishness.
An easy way to understand self-compassion is to compare it to the instructions given by flight attendants in case of a depressurized airplane cabin: you’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs. In the same way, we need to look after ourselves before taking care of others.
Make Peace With Your Inner Critic
People generally try to hide their shortcomings in order to maintain a positive self-image. With self-compassion, people can actually increase their knowledge and clarity about their own limitations (Neff, 2003).
It might seem like that could end in a downward spiral, but self-compassion has been found to be positively correlated with improved mental health and greater life satisfaction.
So what can you do to turn our inner critic into a gentle supporter? Traditional cognitive skills training has been found rather ineffective in this area.
One 2010 study randomly assigned college freshmen one of three workbooks for depression: traditional cognitive, non-traditional cognitive, and academic skills (Haeffel). The study found that the participants who were high in rumination exhibited significantly greater levels of depression and that the cognitive training worsened rumination among the subjects (Haeffel, 2010).
This study shows that rather than working on the cognitive level, the inner critic needs to be tackled in a different way: with self-awareness and understanding.
5 Ways to Practice Self-Compassion
Here are five essential steps to increase your self-compassion using internal and external resources:
Step 1: Practice Forgiveness
Stop punishing yourself for your mistakes. Accept that you are not perfect and be gentle with yourself when you are confronted with your shortcomings. You are valued by your friends and colleagues because of who you are, not because you are faultless.
Become aware of times when you derive a sense of self-worth from performance or perfection. Understand that you do not need to be a certain way to be worthy of love.
One way to remind yourself that you are worthy, even when you’re not performing well, is to put a sticky note near your desk or in your wallet with a message reminding you to be gentle and kind with yourself.
“There is no sense in punishing your future for the mistakes of your past. Forgive yourself, grow from it, and then let it go.” – Melanie Koulouris
Step 2: Employ a Growth Mindset
At the heart of Carol Dweck’s research is the impact of our mindset on wellbeing. She found that whether we have a fixed or growth mindset influences our happiness. Do you view challenges as impossible obstacles or as opportunities to grow? Employing a growth mindset is more helpful.
Embrace rather than avoid challenges, persist in finding meaning in them, and don’t give up on yourself. When you find you are criticizing yourself and negatively comparing yourself with others, try to find inspiration in their successes and strengths instead of feeling threatened.
Step 3: Express Gratitude
Feeling gratitude is very powerful (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Rather than wishing for what we do not have, there is strength in appreciating what we do have, right now. You can choose to write a gratitude journal or go for gratitude walks. By focusing on our blessings we employ a gentler inner voice and move the focus away from our shortcomings and outward to the world, with all its beauty.
Step 4: Find the Right Level of Generosity
Raj Raghunathan (2016) has identified three different reciprocity styles: giver, taker, and matcher. Givers are the most generous people, and generosity is a great way of employing compassion. However, givers can be both the most successful and least successful people, as they may fall into a pattern of selfless giving that ignores their own needs.
For generosity to work in favor of your well-being, it cannot be selfless. So, when being generous, make sure you are aware of your own needs before progressing. Then consciously choose the recipient of your generosity, the resources you have available, and your level of energy based on what will support your own well-being.
Also, have fun being generous. See the difference you make and do not forget to give back to yourself. Doing good for others makes us happy, but only if it does not reduce our own levels of well-being.
Step 5: Be Mindful
Mindfulness has been found to have a positive impact on self-compassion, as it has a tendency to lessen self-judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). Strive to always be in the moment and to be aware of what is happening right now, without judgment and labeling.
Allow what you think or feel to have its moment; don’t give it the microphone or hide it in the corner. Allow it to come, and then, without attachment, let it go.
The Take-Home Message
You are worthy of love. So, next time you do not rise to the expectations you have for yourself, take a moment to pause and reassess.
Be mindful of the difficult emotions that arise. Forgive yourself and recognize that you are only human. See if you can identify how to do it differently next time. Be grateful for the opportunity you had in the first place and for your persistence to try again.
Finally, accept yourself. You are not perfect. And yes, you likely could have done better. But chances are, you did just fine. And often, that’s more than enough.
We would love to hear how you feel about this article and how you are bringing more self-compassion into your life. Take a moment to share your story in the comment section below. Maybe it will inspire others to start their journey of self-love and satisfaction.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Hawkley, L. C. (2005). People thinking about people: The vicious cycle of being a social outcast in one’s own mind. The social outcast: Ostracism, social exclusion, rejection, and bullying, 91-108.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological science, 13(1), 81-84.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.
Haeffel, G. J. (2010). When self-help is no help: traditional cognitive skills training does not prevent depressive symptoms in people who ruminate. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48(2), 152-157.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2014). The Challenge of a Life’s Time—and a Lifetime. Mindfulness, 5(3), 334-340. doi: 10.1007/s12671-014-0309-z
Neff, K. D. (2003). The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-Compassion. Psychology Press, 2, 223–250.
Ragunathan, R. (2016). If you're so smart, why aren't you happy? London: Portfolio.
Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries (Vol. 25): Academic Press. Inc.