My specialty is working with women who struggle with anxiety. Many people come to me because their anxiety has started to interfere with their day-to-day living. They describe getting caught up in the negative loop of self-judgment; when they perceive that they’ve made a mistake or done something wrong, they can’t stop thinking about it. They think about what they could have done differently and put themselves down for the perceived infraction. Those negative thoughts make them feel bad, so they continue to think about what happened, hoping that next time they’ll get it right.
When Your Go-To Response Is “It’s My Fault”
Why are we so quick to blame ourselves? Women, at least many of us, judge ourselves way harder than we would ever judge another person. We expect perfection from ourselves but forgive or allow imperfection in others.
We’ve all experienced how making a small mistake, saying the wrong thing, or forgetting something can make us feel bad about ourselves for much too long. But doesn’t everyone make mistakes? I often ask people in the therapy room, “Does beating yourself up make you feel better?” The reality is it usually makes them feel worse. It doesn’t inspire them to be perfect; it just leaves them feeling defeated and unmotivated.
Why Are We So Hard on Ourselves?
So why do we continue to be our own worst enemies? What purpose does that negative, critical voice serve? Many people in therapy feel like it keeps them on track, or they believe it will keep them from making future mistakes. But when we dig deep, they can often identify that voice as a critical parent, caregiver, partner, or coach who used criticism as a way to motivate or punish.
Over time, those stories you heard about your faults became your own. You owned them, internalizing them so they felt true. But through therapy, you come to recognize the stories as just that—merely stories that someone else assigned to you. Stories you can choose to let go of and no longer hold as true.
Self-Compassion Isn’t Selfish
Self-criticism usually stems from our deep-seated fears, like fear of failure, disappointment, or abandonment. Our inner critic believes that constantly reminding us of our faults will keep those fears from becoming reality. Instead, what usually happens is that listening to the critical voice makes us feel anxious and depressed.
Start to notice when you’re hard on yourself. Listen to the way you talk to yourself and ask if you’d talk to a friend in the same way. Doing this can highlight just how tough you can be toward yourself.
When exploring how to quiet the inner critic with people in therapy, I suggest using a more self-compassionate voice. But self-compassion is often confused with selfishness or self-indulgence. People will often say, “If I give myself a pass for my mistakes, then I’ll keep screwing things up.” Or, “If I’m listening and comforting myself, then that’s just selfish.”
But self-compassion is about offering yourself the same compassion you’d offer a friend, family member, or stranger. It’s finding the voice within us that can recognize that we’re imperfect, and the ability to love both the imperfections and the perfections. Self-compassion acknowledges we’re human, just like everyone else!
Dr. Kristin Neff describes self-compassion this way: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings—after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
Can Self-Compassion Really Help?
Research has shown that people who practice self-compassion are more likely to be more optimistic, happier, and more satisfied with their lives. They ruminate less—that is, they don’t dwell on negative thoughts. They have less anxiety and stress, and have more positive feelings about their bodies.
Self-compassion isn’t about ignoring or pushing away negative thoughts when they pop up. It’s about being more understanding and compassionate with yourself when they do surface. That leads you to feeling better about yourself, creating less negative self-talk, being more accepting of yourself, and having a greater ability to put things in perspective.
Getting Started with Self-Compassion
The first step toward bringing more self-compassion into your life is recognizing when your critical voice shows up and how it expresses itself. Start to notice when you’re hard on yourself. Listen to the way you talk to yourself and ask if you’d talk to a friend in the same way. Doing this can highlight just how tough you can be toward yourself.
Next, when you notice you’re beating yourself up, try asking yourself what you might say to a friend who was struggling. If you respond in a kinder, more compassionate voice, try offering yourself those same words.
Self-compassion takes a lot of practice. Your first attempts might not feel genuine if you’re used to being hard on yourself. If you find you’re unable to come up with something to say, you can start by imagining what a good friend might say to you if they knew you were struggling. Offer those words to yourself and see if you don’t start to notice a break in the cycle of negative self-talk. Then, you can start to feel better about your whole self.
If you would like guidance and support in becoming more self-compassionate, contact a licensed therapist in your area.
Here’s to a happy, healthy, safe new year filled with love, light, and self-compassion!
- Neff, K. D. (2017). The three elements of self-compassion. Retrieved from http://self-compassion.org
- Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. (2017). Self-compassion and psychological wellbeing. In J. Doty (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, (371-386). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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