If you have a feeling that the voice in your head may be your worst critic, read on! Because the way you talk to yourself plays a vital role on your wellbeing.
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel accepted and even supported rather than criticised by that voice inside you? In this article, I will offer you five ways to help you overcome your inner critic by strengthening your self-compassion.
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 go to quite some trouble to ensure you guys get along well? Wouldn’t you want to make sure you guys were in a positive, supportive relationship?
So what about that journey you’re on right now, the one called life? How do you feel about the relationship you have with that voice inside your head? Do you have a positive supportive relationship with this voice or is it your worst critic?
“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
The Relationship with Ourselves
The way we perceive a situation is never the objective reality, and quite often our perception of reality can be irrational. We all have our own filters and explanatory styles which paint the picture of the world as we see it.
Growing up we were conditioned by our parents or the people who look after us in our early lives. Depending on how they lived their lives, we learn from them how to live ours. Depending on which values they lived by, we 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 we deem to be correct and desirable in life (Schwartz, 1992). Values create our subconscious scoring rubric through which we assess and rate others and ourselves as worthy or ideal. For instance, values such as responsibility, openness and respect have the tendency to strengthen relationships and provide a basis for wellbeing and creativity.
Depending on our environment and the values we were taught growing up we will develop our inner guiding voice and there is a tendency for it to be harshly self-critical. We take the values we grew up with (such as performance) and if our perception of ourselves does not correlate with our values (“I did not do well enough, I should have done better”) we tend to deem ourselves unworthy.
In the long run, this subjective and self-critical perception of how we live up to these values has an impact on our sense of self-worth which in turn determines whether the voice in our head is kind and supportive or destructive and devaluing. Unfortunately, the perception we have of ourselves also influences our behaviour, which means we create our own self-fulfilling prophecy, never living up to the “good enough” value.
How does this impact our wellbeing?
Research has found that people who are socially isolated often actively contribute to their situation, as they are more likely to hold negative expectations for their treatment by others and therefore 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 behaviour. A downward spiral which clearly, has a negative impact on our long-term happiness and wellbeing.
Conversely, Diener and Seligman (2002) found that the difference between consistently happy people and unhappy people is not that the latter exercise more, participate more often in religious activities or experience more objectively defined “good events”. The difference was in fact found to be good social relations.
This is not surprising as research have proven time and again the human and animal psychological need for belonging. Even more important, however, is the relationship we have with ourselves. Our thoughts, and particularly how we perceive ourselves, greatly impacts on our well-being.
An Introduction to Self-Compassion
Rather than trying to change deeply rooted values, we can lessen the impact they have on us by learning to change the view we have of ourselves. At the centre of working with the inner critic is the idea of self-compassion.
Self-compassion means being gentle, kind and understanding with yourself. Accepting that you are not perfect and 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.” Dalai Lama
The Buddhist understanding of compassion means offering patience, kindness and nonjudgmental understanding to others as well as oneself. Self- compassion, however, does not entail being selfish. In fact, it is similar to the instructions we receive when travelling by plane; look after yourself first before offering to help others.
Make peace with your inner critic
We generally try to hide our shortcomings in order to maintain a positive self-image. With self-compassion, we actually increase the knowledge and clarity about our limitations (Neff, 2003). Despite what initially seems like it could end in a downward spiral, self-compassion has been found to have a significant correlation with positive mental health and greater life satisfaction.
So what can you do to turn our inner critic into a gentle supporter?
Traditional cognitive skills training have been found rather ineffective in this area. A study with college freshmen who were randomly assigned one of three workbooks for depression: traditional cognitive, non-traditional cognitive and academic skills. The study found that the participants who were high in rumination exhibited significantly greater levels of depression and the cognitive training worsened rumination for the college freshmen (Haeffel, 2010).
This study shows that rather than working on the cognitive level, the inner critic needs to be tackled in a different way; through self-awareness and understanding.
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 for who you are, not because you are faultless.
Become aware 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 without performance is to put a sticky note near your desk or in your wallet to send 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 insuperable obstacles or as chances to grow?
Become aware of your view of the world and try to employ a growth mindset. Embrace rather than avoid challenges, persist in finding meaning in them, don’t give up on yourself. When you find you are criticizing yourself in comparison with others, try to find inspiration in their successes and strengths instead than feeling threatened.
Step 3: Express Gratitude
Feeling a sense of gratitude is very powerful (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Rather than wishing for what we do not have, there is a lot of strength in appreciating what we do have, right now. You can choose to write a gratitude journal or go for gratitude walks. By focussing on our blessings we employ a gentler voice and move the focus away from ourselves and our shortcomings and out 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. Obviously, givers are the most generous people and generosity is a great way of employing compassion. However, givers can be both the most successful and the most unsuccessful of people as they may fall into a pattern of selfless giving, ignoring their own needs.
For generosity to work in favour of your wellbeing, it cannot be selfless. So when being generous, make sure you are aware of your own needs before progressing. Then consciously choose the person, the resources you have available and your level of energy based on what is in surplus to your own wellbeing.
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 your own wellbeing.
Step 5: Be Mindful
Mindfulness has been found to have a positive impact on self-compassion as it has the tendency to lessen self-judgement (Kabat-Zinn, 2014). Whatever you do, try to be in the moment and aware of what is happening right now without judgement and labelling.
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.
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.
Become mindful of the difficult emotions that arise, forgive yourself and recognise 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 in the future and finally, accept yourself. You are not perfect. And yes you could have done better. But hey, you did alright! And sometimes alright is just fine.
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, 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.