“I used to think that I couldn’t get my highest performance without being critical of my performance - I thought that’s what being a good performer was about. I talked this over with my mentor and we explored what it would be like to be less critical, and more kind to myself. We found that I could be just as good without being critical, which allowed me to look to my next performance. rather than focusing on past mistakes.”
What is "my inner critic"?
Most of us have an “inner critic.” This is the internal voice that we repress, it tells us to do better, suggests we haven’t done well enough, or that we’ve failed somehow. Most often, we can choose not to take these thoughts seriously, or they are balanced by telling ourselves we’ve done a good job, it’s okay to make mistakes, and that these things happen. The problem happens when the inner critic takes the driving seat.
The space between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion
Translator: Rui Jiang Reviewer: Queenie Lee
I guess you could say that I am a self-compassion evangelist.
I love spreading the good word about self-compassion.
I've devoted the last ten years of my research career
to studying the mental health benefits of self-compassion,
and more recently I've been working on developing interventions to help people
learn to be more compassionate to themselves in their lives.
And the reason I'm so passionate about self-compassion
is because I have really seen its power in my own life.
I first learned about self-compassion in 1997,
when I was finishing up my PhD at UC Berkeley.
I was going through a really hard time.
I had just gotten out of a very messy divorce
with feeling of a lot of shame and self-judgment.
I was feeling a lot of stress.
Would I finish my PhD?
And if I did, would I get a job?
So, I thought it would be a good time to learn how to practice meditation.
So I signed up with a local Buddhist meditation group.
And the very first evening, the very first course,
the woman leading the group talked about the importance of compassion,
not only for others, but also for ourselves,
the importance of including ourselves in the circle of compassion,
of treating ourselves with the same kindness, care, and concern
that we treat a good friend.
And it was like a light bulb went off over my head at that moment.
I realized - well, first I thought, what?
You're allowed to be nice yourself, and this is being encouraged?
But I realized,
it was exactly what I needed in that difficult moment in my life.
So really, from that day forward,
I can say I intentionally tried to be more compassionate to myself,
and it made a huge difference almost immediately.
And then, luckily, I did get a job; I did two years of postdoctoral study
with one of the country's leading self-esteem researchers.
And while working with her, I started to realize that self-compassion
offered a lot of benefits that self-esteem didn't.
Let me start by defining what I mean by self-esteem.
Self-esteem is a global evaluation of self-worth, a judgment:
"Am I a good person, or I'm a bad person?"
And for many years, psychologists really saw self-esteem
as the ultimate marker of psychological health,
and there's a reason for that.
There's lots of research that shows if you have low self-esteem,
if you hate yourself, you're going to be depressed,
you're going to be anxious,
you're going to have all sorts of psychological problems;
if it gets really bad, you might even consider suicide.
However, high self-esteem also can be problematic.
The problem is not if you have it;
it's how you get it.
In American culture,
to have high self-esteem,
we have to feel special and above-average.
If I told anyone of you, your work performance,
"Oh, it's average," or "you are an average mother,"
or if you told me afterward that this talk was average,
I'd be crashed, right?
It's not okay to be average.
It's considered an insult to be average.
So what's the problem with that?
If all of us have to be above average at the same time, right?
Are the words "logical impossibility" springing to mind here, right?
So what happens if we all have to feel above-average?
As we started playing these little games,
we start suddenly finding ways to puff ourselves up and put others down
so we can feel better about ourselves in comparison.
And some people actually take this to an extreme.
You may or may not know,
but there is an epidemic of narcissism in this culture.
We've been tracking the narcissism levels of college undergraduates
for the past 25 years,
and they are at the highest levels ever recorded,
and actually a lot of psychologists
believe this is because of the self-esteem movement in the schools.
And there are a lot of nasty social dynamics
that can stem from needing to feel better than others
to feel good about ourselves.
We also have an epidemic of bullying in our culture in our schools.
Why do kids bully?
Why do kids who are forming their sense of self
feel they've got to bully others?
It's partly to build their own sense of self-esteem,
to feel that they are stronger, more powerful
than these other kids that they're picking on.
Or why are people prejudiced?
Why do we feel that our religious group, or ethnic group, or political party
is better than the other group?
Partly, in order to enhance our own self-esteem.
Another problem with self-esteem is that it's contingent on success.
We only feel good about ourselves when we succeed in those domains of life
that are important to us.
But what happens when we fail?
What happens when we don't meet our ideal standards?
We feel lousy,
we feel terrible about ourselves.
And for women this is especially hard
because what do you think research shows, around the world,
the number-one domain in which women invest their self-esteem?
Our perception of how attractive we are.
And the standards for women are so high.
How can we feel above average in looks? We're looking at all these supermodels.
Even the supermodels feel insecure compared to other supermodels, right?
It's very interesting if you look at this developmentally.
Around third grade, boys and girls both think they're pretty attractive,
and they have fairly high levels of self-esteem.
Then for boys, about the end of sixth grade:
yeah, looking pretty good, feeling pretty good.
End of high school: looking good, feeling good about myself.
But for girls, after third grade ...
their perception of how attractive they are,
and therefore their self-esteem, starts to take a nosedive.
It starts very young.
So how do we get off this treadmill,
this constant need to feel better than others
so that we can feel good about ourselves?
That's where self-compassion comes in.
Self-compassion is not a way of judging ourselves positively,
self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves kindly,
embracing ourselves as we are: flaws and all.
I actually define self-compassion in my research
as having three core components.
The first, you might say, is the most obvious,
and that is treating ourselves with kindness versus harsh self-judgment.
Treating ourselves like we treat a good friend,
with encouragement, understanding, empathy, patience, gentleness.
But if you stop to check in with how we treat ourselves,
especially on a bad day when things aren't going so well,
we're often harsher and more cruel to ourselves in the language we use.
We say things to ourselves
we would never say to someone we cared about.
We say things to ourselves
we probably even wouldn’t say to someone we didn't like very much.
We are often our own worst enemy.
With self-compassion, we reverse that pattern
and start treating ourselves like we treat our good friends.
The second component of self-compassion
is common humanity.
Where self-esteem asks, "How am I different than others?"
Self-compassion says, "Well, how am I same as others?"
And one of the ways we are the same as others -
What does it mean to be human?
To be human means to be imperfect.
All of us, everyone on the entire globe,
we are imperfect as people, and our lives are imperfect.
That is the shared human experience.
Often what happens, though, irrationally,
when we notice something about ourselves -
we haven't reached our goal, or we're struggling in life -
we feel as if, "Something has gone wrong here."
"This is abnormal." "This shouldn't be this way."
"I shouldn't be failing to reach my goals."
And it's that feeling of abnormality, of separation from others,
that is so psychologically damaging.
We make it so much worse
by feeling we're isolated in our suffering and our imperfection,
when in fact, that's precisely what connects us to other people.
The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being with what is in the present moment.
And we need to be able to turn toward, acknowledge, validate,
and accept the fact that we are suffering
in order to give ourselves compassion.
Actually, oftentimes we aren't aware of our own suffering,
especially when that suffering comes from our own harsh self-criticism.
We get so lost in the role of self-critic,
so identified with the part of ourselves that puts the back up straight, saying,
"You are wrong, you should have done better."
But we don't even notice
the incredible pain we're causing ourselves.
And if we don't notice
what we're doing to ourselves with our harsh self-criticism,
we can't give yourselves the compassion we need.
You might be asking, "Why do we do it?"
Self-criticism, we know it's painful. Why do we do it?
We've actually found in research -
there are lots of reasons we're self-critical -
but the number one reason ...
is that we believe we need our self-criticism to motivate ourselves;
that if we are too kind to ourselves,
we'll be self-indulgent and lazy.
So the question is: Is it true?
Actually, the research shows just the opposite:
Self-criticism undermines our motivation,
and here's why.
When we criticize ourselves,
we are tapping into our bodies' threat-defense system:
the reptilian brain.
This system evolved
so that if there was a threat to our physical person,
we would release adrenaline and cortisol,
and prepare for the fight-or-flight response.
The system evolved for threats to our actual bodily self,
but in modern times, typically, the threat is not to our actual selves
but to our self-concept.
When we think a thought about ourselves
that we don't like, that's some imperfection,
we feel threatened,
and so we attack the problem, meaning we attack ourselves.
And with self-criticism, it's a double whammy
because we are both the attacker and the attacked.
So self-criticism releases a lot of cortisol.
If you are constant self-critic, you have constantly high levels of stress,
and eventually the body, to protect itself, will shut itself down
and become "I'm depressed" in order to deal with all the stress.
And as we know, depression is not exactly the best motivational mindstate.
Luckily, we aren't just reptiles,
we're also mammals.
There's another way we can feel safe,
and that is by tapping into the mammalian caregiving system.
What's unique about mammals is they are born very immature,
which means a system had to be evolved
in which the infant would want to stay close next to the mother
and stay safe,
which means our bodies are programmed to respond to warmth,
gentle touch, and soft vocalizations.
So when we give ourselves compassion,
the research shows we actually reduce our cortisol levels,
and release oxytocin and opiates,
which are the feel-good hormones.
And when we feel safe and comforted,
we are in the optimal mindstate to do our best.
And it's actually very easy to see
when we think about how to best motivate our children.
Let's say there is a father
whose son comes home from high school with a failing math grade.
The father has two different ways to try to motivate his child.
The first is with harsh criticism.
The son comes in, shows to father the math grade,
and the father says,
"I'm ashamed of you. What a loser. You'll never amount to anything."
Does that make you cringe?
Isn't that often precisely the type of language we use with ourselves?
What's going to happen to that son?
Will he try harder? Yes, he will for the short term.
But eventually, he's going to lose faith in himself.
He's going to become depressed, and he will become afraid of failure
and probably give up math
because the consequences of failing again are just too dire.
But what if the father takes a compassionate approach?
The son shows him the failing math grade, and the father says,
"Uhh, ouch, wow. You must be hurting. I'm sorry.
Hey, give me a hug. I still love you. It happens to everyone.
But I know you want to get your math grades up
because you want to go to college."
Here's what compassion says: "What can I do to help?"
"How can I support you?"
And the more encouraging, loving, compassionate the father is,
the better place, emotionally, the son will be in to do his best.
And luckily, research strongly supports everything I've been saying.
The last few years, especially, have seen a sharp uptick
in the number of research studies conducted on self-compassion.
And the bottom line is unequivocally:
Self-compassion is very strongly related to mental well-being.
It's strongly related to less depression,
less anxiety, less stress, less perfectionism.
It's equally strongly related to positive states, like happiness,
like life satisfaction.
It's linked to greater motivation, taking greater self-responsibility,
making healthier lifestyle choices.
It's also linked to having more sense of connectedness with others,
better interpersonal relationships.
We've also done some research
comparing directly self-esteem and self-compassion.
And what we find, what you can say
is that self-compassion offers the benefits of self-esteem
without the pitfalls.
So it's associated with strong mental health,
but it's not associated with narcissism, or constant social comparison,
or ego-defensive aggression.
It also provides a much more stable sense of self-worth than self-esteem does
because it's there for you precisely when you fail.
Just when self-esteem deserts you,
self-compassion steps in and gives you a sense of being valuable,
not because you've reached some standard, or you've judged yourself positively,
but because you are a human being, worthy of love in that moment.
And again this is something I really know from my personal life.
The greatest challenge I have faced in my life, so far,
was when my son Rowan was diagnosed with autism.
And luckily when he was diagnosed,
I had a long practice of self-compassion under my belt.
So when I first got the diagnosis,
I felt incredible grief;
I even felt some shame.
And it was very hard to feel that, to admit that to myself.
Because how can I feel grief
about this child who I love more than anyone else in the world?
The thing is I was feeling that, and I knew
that what I needed at that moment was to embrace how difficult it was.
And the more I could embrace my own grief, the more quickly I moved through it,
and then the more able I was to turn toward him
and accept and love him for who he was.
It also helped me over and over again in the heat of the moment.
As you may know, one issue with autistic children,
especially when they're young, is they can throw very terrible tantrums.
So, imagine being on a plane to England -
this is a true story, Rowan was four years old -
I don't know what set him off,
but he throws a doozy of tantrum.
Flailing and screaming.
Everyone on that plane looking at us like they wish we were dead.
He's four years old; he looks normal.
People are thinking,
"What's wrong with this kid? Why is he acting this way?
What's wrong with this mother, why can't she control her child?"
Okay, lots of fear. What do I do, what do I do?
Jumping out the window sadly wasn't an option, so ...
I know, I'll take him to the bathroom. Try to comfort him there.
Maybe it'll muffle his screams.
So I'm kind of taking this four-year-old, flailing child to the bathroom,
which was, of course ...
Imagine being in that little space outside the bathroom door
with this tantruming child,
and I knew, in that moment, the only refuge I had was self-compassion.
So I put my hands over my heart, and I tried to comfort him,
but I was mainly focusing on myself.
"This is so hard right now, darling. I'm so sorry you're going through this.
But I'm here for you."
And you know what? It got me through.
And by allowing myself to be open-hearted toward myself,
I could remain open-hearted to Rowan.
People sometimes think self-compassion is self-indulgent or selfish.
Because the more we were able to keep our hearts open to ourselves,
the more we have available to give to others.
So I would like to invite you to try to be more compassionate to yourself.
Especially as women, you know how to do it.
You know how to be a good friend.
You know what to say to comfort someone when they're in need.
You just have to remember to be a good friend to yourself.
It's easier than you think, and it really could change your life.
And that's why I think self-compassion is an idea worth spreading.
Why do I feel overly critical?
It’s natural for us to notice how we’ve performed, and to give ourselves feedback based on our performance. When we’re under stress, however, we can go into ‘threat mode’ where we notice more of the negative things, than the positive, or the negative voice can feel very loud. Sometimes we believe that this mode is useful and so we overuse it and forget to balance this with kindness to ourselves. We can focus excessively on achieving our goals, and this leads us to feel like failures. If we are too focused on achievement for too long, we can forget how to relax and recover.
It’s hardly surprising then that higher levels of self-criticism is related to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and a range of other mental health difficulties. When a person is feeling down and depressed, another factor can then come in: we become quite literally blind to the good things in ourselves, (in other people and the world around us). That means all we notice are the problems. It becomes even easier to be self-critical when it feels like we’re taking a fair look and all we’re able to see in our self is negatives.
So while we might feel like being harsh on ourselves is useful as a form of self-motivation, when we overuse self-criticism and tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough, by not focusing on our good behaviours/performance, we can create a handbrake preventing performance.
How common is self-criticism?
Problematic self-criticism is more common than we might realise. In a study of high performing athletes around 10% experienced it, and nearly 20% (1 in 5) in a study of high school students. Given the relationship between low self-criticism and other mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression, this gives us a good place to start to understand how we might be able to tackle some of these major mental health challenges through improving our self-esteem.
Inner critic self-check
If we tend to talk to ourselves harshly e.g. “Come on! We should do better than this!”, more often than not, our inner critic may have too much influence over how we see ourselves. We may also constantly seek reassuring feedback or confirmation of negative perceptions we have of our performance. We may also worry a lot about our performance, whether we’ve failed or not and engage in unhelpful thinking, telling ourselves “I should have done…” or “I always suck at…”.
Often what’s going on around us may influence our thinking style. For example, when we’re feeling stressed or don’t have contact with others like we normally would, blaming ourselves for little things or not giving ourselves a break might come up more often.
Being down on ourselves as a whole person, as opposed to specific mistakes we may make
Often avoiding taking risks
Often avoid expressing our opinion
Comparing ourselves to other people and feeling like we come up short
Never being satisfied with achievements
Having impossibly high standards (or people tell you that you do)
Worry and 'what if' scenarios
Body image issues.
Never asking for help.
Not asserting our needs and desires
Persistently analysing and ruminating on mistakes
Don't forgive easily
Don't give ourselves compliments
Get defensive in the face of feedback
Can't accept compliments
Think in black and white terms
Achievements in life have chronically fallen beneath our capabilities
What can I do to stop feeling overly critical?
The first step is to intentionally notice what we are saying to ourselves when we don’t reach our goals. We can do this by trying mindfulness (e.g. Smiling Mind and Headspace apps) or deliberately noticing when our mind wonders to worries or anxiety by bringing it back to little things during our routine or daily tasks (e.g. brushing our teeth, doing dishes). This gives us the space to recognise what kinds of things we’re telling ourselves, and whether we’re more likely to be kind or critical of ourselves. Follow this by acknowledging that self-criticism isn’t necessary in order for us to perform at our best — we don’t need our inner critic to takeover to do well. Try asking yourself, “Would I talk to a young child or my mate in the same way?”
You could even do small experiments to see what it’s like to be self-critical for one day, and then be more self-compassionate another, and notice the impact it has on your mood, thoughts, and how you treat others. Another way is to think about someone that we think is a high performer, but also kind or compassionate, do they need to be overly critical to do well?
Once we understand that self-criticism isn’t an essential element for performance, we can develop our self-compassion. Just like we develop a muscle, this takes training and practice. We’d get bored with doing interval training all the time, so try mix it up by trying different self-compassion exercises.
Visualise someone you think is kind, and imagine them talking to you after you’ve made a mistake. Giving kindness to others is another tool that can help us understand the value of giving ourselves a break. Imagining giving compassion to someone else after the same mistake, is a way of developing our self-compassion.
We know that how we think impacts on how we feel. One way we can highlight this link is to use a ‘Compassionate thought diary’ to see the value of compassionate thinking when we experience self-critical thinking. This diary starts with identifying the initial trigger to our self-critical thinking, and what the content of our self-critical thinking is. Once we’ve identified what situations we tend to be self-critical in, engaging in mindfulness or using our compassionate imagery can help us to consider how to respond in a kinder way. For example, we might be able to think about the situation in more realistic terms (e.g. actually a lot of people only get G2 RFL pass), and create a constructive and realistic list of what we might do different next time, (see the example in the attachment).
By framing a response to a particular problem in a self-compassionate way, this is a way to tackle a specific problem. Start by stating the problem that you’ve noticed your inner critic is talking to you about. Next, try some mindfulness exercises, slow breathing, or recalling our compassionate image as a prompt for our ‘soothe system’ to start its balancing act. We can then write a letter to ourselves looking at the problem from a compassionate or objective view, or perhaps imagine your friend has the same problem and has asked your advice.
Helping someone else
Often those with a loud inner critic will seek reassurance they have done okay, or seek feedback to confirm their own negative thoughts about their performance. Understanding that they come with their own experiences which shape their perspectives, and that they might need a little kindness is important. Using active listening and empathy will help them know we’re on their side. Providing accurate and tactful feedback which focuses on improving, rather than continually thinking about or focusing on past performance is helpful too.