Need to know
Imagine you’ve been planning for a high-stakes situation, such as a difficult conversation with a friend, an important sports game, or a presentation for your company’s leadership team. You’ve spent months rehearsing what you’ll say or do. But then, once you’re in front of your friend, the game starts, or you face your colleagues and superiors – you choke.
No words come out. You stiffen and miss your shots.
Anxious, embarrassed, you’re terrified you’ll lose your friend, get dropped from the team, or miss your chance at the promotion. Afterwards, you run somewhere private to cry or squirm, or both.
As you stand there, tears flowing and stomach churning, you’re hit with a flurry of thoughts:
She’ll never speak to me again. / I’ll never get picked for the team again. / I’m never getting promoted.
How did I mess that up when I practised for so long?
What made me think I was worthy in the first place?
I’ll never succeed at anything.
If you’re like many people who put unfair pressure or expectations on themselves, you may know these kinds of self-critical thoughts well. This doesn’t mean you like them, but they’ve frequented your mind nonetheless.
Self-criticism doesn’t work
When we respond with self-criticism in moments of emotional pain, we’re making a deliberate effort to reduce our suffering. In terms of evolution, self-criticism developed as a response to social emotions, such as shame, humiliation and guilt, with the purpose being to increase our sense of control, self-protect from others’ judgment, redirect our anger, and motivate ourselves to change our behaviour next time. In short, self-criticism is an evolved strategy to stay part of the in-group in order to survive.
I see this often in my work with clients: they believe that the harsher they are on themselves, the more motivated to change – and consequently accepted by others – they’ll be. If they just push themselves harder in the face of painful emotions, they’ll come out the other side stronger. If they hold themselves to impossible standards, they’re sure to meet them eventually. Their overarching belief is that self-criticism, in all its forms, means getting better, working harder, and achieving more.
But it’s not that simple. Self-criticism doesn’t increase your sense of control, but rather tricks your brain into feeling in control. Instead of protecting you from others’ judgment, self-criticism subjects you to your own. While it may redirect anger, this means emotions are suppressed rather than expressed. And while some will say they need self-criticism to motivate themselves to change, this goes against a core tenet of behaviourism: that punishment is not as powerful as reinforcement.
Fortunately, there’s a smoother, less travelled road you can choose to take, and it’s the antidote to self-criticism. This is self-compassion.
Self-compassion is a beneficial alternative
The psychologist and self-compassion expert Kristin Neff defines self-compassion as
being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognising that one’s experience is part of the common human experience.
In short, self-compassion is being an ally to yourself rather than an enemy.
Self-compassion involves three closely connected components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is as it sounds: it’s the act of treating yourself kindly, rather than with harsh criticism. Common humanity involves acknowledging that humans are flawed works-in-progress who are all connected to each other, if only through the fact that they all struggle in some way. Finally, mindfulness is the process of neither pushing away nor clinging to any thought or feeling – it’s the experience of simply observing everything as it is.
Self-compassion is different from self-esteem. While self-esteem involves comparing your abilities with others’, or against a gold standard, in order to feel superior or valued, self-compassion orients you to the act of caring for yourself regardless of your abilities. Consider the following example:
High self-esteem: Yes! I got an A on that test. That shows I’m smarter than most.
High self-compassion: Yes! I got an A on that test. It’s a just reward for all the effort I put into my studies.
Self-esteem is outcomes-oriented, whereas self-compassion is process-oriented. Research shows that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem. And that’s not all.
Whereas the effects of self-criticism (for example, self-scrutiny and isolation) have the potential to develop into mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, self-compassion offers a wealth of benefits to your mental and physical wellbeing. Those higher in self-compassion judge themselves less, experience less depression and anxiety, use more adaptive coping strategies, are motivated to grow for intrinsic reasons (as opposed to for social approval), are more self-accepting, feel more socially connected, and report greater life satisfaction. Compared with those low in self-compassion, people high in self-compassion also fare better physically: they experience fewer symptoms of illness, lower-intensity pain and better-quality sleep.
These benefits are attributable, at least in part, to self-compassion’s ability to deactivate the body’s threat system (which is associated with insecurity and defensiveness) and to activate its self-soothing system (which is associated with feelings of safety). Whereas self-criticism signals to a brain structure called the amygdala that a threat is present – consequently increasing the body’s blood pressure, adrenaline and cortisol – self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, a hormone that is involved in regulating stress and calming the nervous system.
Self-compassion doesn’t always come easy
Despite the extensive research demonstrating the mental and physical benefits of self-compassion, it’s an often unknown, overlooked or even avoided practice. Some people are unfamiliar with self-compassion because it was never, or only infrequently, modelled by their parents or caregivers. When children seek compassion, comfort and support, and are responded to accordingly, they’re more likely to develop these skills themselves. Moreover, children who feel more secure in their relationships (ie, they feel lovable and don’t fear abandonment) often have more self-compassion later in life. In contrast, when children are responded to with rejection, criticism or even overprotection, it invalidates their need for compassion, which lowers their ability to provide it to themselves, and often leads to the development of self-critical habits.
Even for those familiar with self-compassion, misunderstandings of what it truly involves can be another barrier. Many of my clients push back against self-compassion, arguing that it will make them self-centred, narcissistic, self-indulgent or lazy. They say they’re not deserving of self-compassion because they’re bad or unworthy. I see this as a fear of stagnancy and the risk of further self-judgment. This is understandable: I’m asking my clients, and you, to try something new. But consider that what you’ve been doing – criticising, judging and punishing yourself – actually disengages you from your goals and sends you deeper into patterns of avoidance, self-hatred, rumination and self-centredness. Taking a compassionate approach to your failures and mistakes will increase your motivation to change your behaviour because the prospect of future ones becomes less threatening.
And for those of you who believe you are undeserving, bad or unworthy, consider that these beliefs may be rooted in fear as well; fear of disappointing yourself and others more than you believe you already have. Fear of digging yourself deeper into the hole of self-hatred you’re already inhabiting. Consider that your self-criticism is an act of violence on yourself, that you are standing over the dark hole in which you live, refusing to pass yourself a ladder to help yourself out.
In this Guide I will provide you with several practical steps and exercises to get started cultivating and embracing self-compassion. May it be the ladder you use to escape the self-critical hole you’re in.
What to do
Learn to identify self-criticism
If you’re like many people, your self-criticism has become a deeply ingrained habit – it’s so automatic, you might not even realise you’re doing it. Yet recognising that you’ve fallen into self-criticism is the crucial first step in saving yourself from it and practising more self-compassion. As the psychiatrist Daniel Siegel puts it: ‘Name it to tame it.’
This step involves asking yourself questions that can help you understand your self-critical tendencies, rather than attaching to them as truths about yourself. It can be helpful, at first, to practise this when you’re feeling calm rather than in the heat of the moment, as a way of helping you build the muscle to more easily identify your answers in a future self-critical moment. Think back to the last time you were hard on yourself, and reflect on the following questions:
- Did I call myself names? Notice any judgmental labels such as ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’, or ‘failure’.
- Was I looking for the worst-case scenario? Check in to see what the threat is that you’re assuming. Thoughts such as ‘I’m definitely losing my job’ or ‘I bet they wish they didn’t invite me to the party’ are self-critical distractions from thinking about how you really feel (for example, ‘I feel insecure after I did that presentation at work’ or ‘I’m ashamed of how much I drank at the party’).
- Did I use words like ‘should’ or ‘must’? If you’re ‘should-ing’ or ‘must-ing’, these are clues that you’re not accepting yourself or your behaviour.
- Was my body showing signs of stress? Notice whether your body tensed up, your breaths became shorter, your eyebrows furrowed, you crossed your arms, or any other indicators that you may be at odds with yourself.
Self-criticism takes many forms and everyone experiences it differently, but if you find yourself answering ‘yes’ to some or all of the questions above, this may be a sign that you fell into self-criticism. Once you’ve identified your answers, remember to be on the lookout for these clues in the future – and now you’ve named it, you can begin to tame it and shift to a more self-compassionate attitude.
Befriend your inner critic
Many of my clients, after identifying the ways in which they’ve criticised themselves, ironically begin to criticise their inner critic, thus perpetuating the problem. It’s meta, it happens, and it’s the brain’s way of sticking to a pattern it believes has long served itself.
To avoid this trap, once you’ve identified how you self-criticise, you can begin to befriend your inner critic. This might sound counterintuitive, but it will pay off in the longer term. You can do this in retrospect or in the moment you catch your inner critic speaking to you.
Imagine your inner critic as a being that lives inside your brain and talks to you. Rather than taking what it says (eg, ‘You’re so pathetic’) to be true or criticising it for speaking up at all, approach your inner critic with curiosity — an ‘Oh, it’s you again’ attitude. Reflect, either internally or through journaling, on what your inner critic is trying to tell you. Consider answering the following questions:
- Why did my inner critic show up and tell me that right now?
- What emotion is my inner critic asking me to focus on?
- Is my inner critic worried I’m in danger?
The principle here is the same as a mathematics teacher asking their students to ‘solve for X’. A wise student might ask: ‘Why? What will X tell me? What can I do once I’ve solved for X?’ Once you have an answer to these questions that help you understand your inner critic’s purpose, thank it for grabbing your attention. You may tell it: ‘Thanks, inner critic, for calling attention to the fact that my to-do list isn’t done today. I know you’re telling me I’m pathetic, but I think you’re also telling me to notice my worry that, if I don’t get to the items on my to-do list, I’ll fall behind on my bills and have to pay late fees. Thanks for that information. Time to problem-solve getting these bills paid.’
Reframe judgmental thoughts as factual ones
Alongside befriending your inner critic, here is another way to respond – try reframing your inner critic’s comments nonjudgmentally. Often, they will show up in the form of judgmental thoughts, such as ‘I’m so pathetic.’ Instead of taking these statements at face value, it can be helpful to reframe them in a factual, objective manner. In doing so, you will help yourself reflect on what this kind of self-criticism means in a less punishing, more compassionate way.
So, if your inner critic said: ‘I’m so nosy. I shouldn’t have asked such personal questions,’ you would restate this as factually as possible. For example: ‘I asked one question about my boss’s marriage that, in this moment, I wish I hadn’t asked.’
Notice the steps I took to rephrase this statement factually: I got specific about the number of questions I asked (one). I described what I asked about (their marriage). I removed judgments (the adjectives ‘nosy’ and ‘personal’). I replaced ‘should’ with a statement of wish or desire.
You may wonder what is the purpose of changing judgmental statements to factual ones. We need to make judgments, after all. They help us discriminate whether it’s safe to cross the street and whether to eat those leftovers at the back of the fridge. But some judgments distort our sense of reality – particularly those judgments that evaluate (for example, seeing something as good or bad, deserving or undeserving) – so that we’re not always seeing things as they truly are. And if we aren’t seeing things clearly, we can’t begin to accept them. This principle applies to your judgmental thoughts as much as to anything else.
Stripping down the situation to its indisputable facts removes the judgmental haze that can pull you into an alternative reality based on your interpretations and assumptions about yourself and the world. If you stick with ‘I’m so nosy’, you might conclude that speaking to your boss is dangerous, and they should be avoided at all costs. In contrast, if you take the behaviour for what it is (‘I asked one question…’) you have the opportunity to reflect on the behaviour itself rather than what the behaviour means about you. Rather than concluding: ‘I need to avoid my boss from now on since I clearly have no boundaries,’ you could conclude: ‘Going forward, I’d like to think more about what topics of conversation feel appropriate for the workplace.’ You’re dialling down the self-criticism and thinking more constructively about how you could learn from what happened.
Practise soothing touch
Reframing judgments as facts may not alleviate self-criticism entirely, which is where soothing touch comes in handy. Imagine a time in the recent past when you believed you embarrassed yourself. Maybe you accidentally wore slippers to work, had food stuck in your teeth, or called your boss ‘Mom’. These are all factual statements, void of judgment, and yet you still may have a visceral reaction in the moment or after the fact. Think about the exact moment the event happened, and you noticed you felt embarrassed. What did your body do? What’s it doing now as you recall the memory?
Most know that what happens in our brain effects what happens in our body – for example, you have a worrisome thought, and your body tenses up. Less known, but equally important, is that the relationship between body and brain is bidirectional. In self-critical moments you may find yourself posturing in specific ways: scrunching your nose, crossing your arms or stiffening your upper lip, to name a few. Because the relationship is bidirectional, changing your body posture can combat self-critical thoughts and increase self-compassionate ones.
One way you can do this is by practising soothing touch. Consider the way it feels when a loving family member, friend or partner hugs you, holds your hand or gently touches your shoulder. While we often depend on others to give us this sensory experience, you can in fact give it to yourself. So, for another way to practise self-compassion, try wrapping your arms around yourself, lying under a soft or weighted blanket, stroking your arm, or touching your heart or cheek with your hand.
Your own soothing touch is a resource that’s always available to you. It’s a technique you can use either during a moment of self-criticism (subtly if necessary) – for example, as you’re in front of your CEO and co-workers, and can’t find the words you’d rehearsed – or in a moment of cringeworthy retrospection. Despite being touchy-feely (pun certainly intended), gentle and soothing touch sends safe and nurturing signals to the brain, setting off the release of oxytocin, which decreases anxiety and increases feelings of trust and contentment.
Talk to a younger version of yourself
If you’ve reached this point and you’re continuing to find it difficult to get into a more self-compassionate place, here’s a further technique that may help.
Given that many of us have histories of criticising ourselves and scrutinising our every behaviour, it can be much easier — especially at first — to direct compassion outside of ourselves before we turn inward. This includes directing it toward your younger self.
When you offer compassion to a younger version of yourself, you’re stepping out of the cognitive rigidity that typically fuels your self-criticism and feelings of shame. By externalising and connecting with a version of yourself that isn’t technically present, you might find you can more easily access a compassionate approach.
I used this exercise with a client – let’s call him Jared – who believed he had failed to make a good first impression when meeting his partner’s parents. He told me he was certain he had ruined his relationship and, what’s more, he considered it was maybe for the best, because he didn’t deserve to be in one anyway. After he tossed through a tornado of self-judgment, I asked him: ‘What would you say to a younger version of yourself who was feeling this way?’
Jared pondered my question and replied:
When I think about how that dinner went, it brings up so much embarrassment for me. If my younger self were feeling embarrassed, what would I say to him? Maybe ‘Ugh! Being embarrassed is the worst. I know how uncomfortable that feeling is.’ I’m also feeling hopeless about my relationship. I guess I would tell my younger self something like ‘Feeling hopeless can be so dark and scary.’
As Jared demonstrates, it’s most effective to do this exercise by isolating the emotion that present-day-you is experiencing, leaving behind the context of your situation. In addition to younger-you probably not having experience with the current context – a four-year-old version of yourself probably isn’t ready to ‘meet the parents’ – isolating the emotion is also helpful in redirecting you away from the details that might fuel evaluation and self-criticism toward a more factual description. So, ‘I drew a blank when his mom asked me whether I wanted to have kids one day’ becomes ‘I feel worried his mom thinks I’m not committed. So, I’m feeling fear.’
This exercise works because, in the end, younger-you and present-day-you are one and the same. In speaking to a younger-you with care and tenderness, you are subtly developing a more compassionate perspective toward yourself. In especially self-critical moments, try asking: ‘What would I say to a younger version of myself who was feeling this way?’
Identify your values
You’ll find that practising self-compassion is more effective when directed towards supporting your needs, rather than being a vague promise to be kinder to yourself. To understand your needs, you must first have some sense of what you value most in life. It’s in the moments that you’re not living in line with your values – and subsequently not practising self-compassion – that you tend to suffer the most.
I went through this process myself over the past couple of years. I found myself taking on more clients than felt manageable, and agreeing to meet with them at session times that worked best for them – early in the morning and late in the evening, the times of day I would otherwise spend practising self-care and relaxing. I found myself stuck in a cycle of: (1) agreeing to something that pushed my personal limits; (2) judging myself for making that decision; and (3) rationalising the decision by reminding myself how much I care about helping others. Unsurprisingly, this cycle burned me out. I woke up most mornings dreading the long workday ahead, judging myself for biting off more than I could chew, and believing that my only option was to white-knuckle my way through the day.
So I dedicated 10 minutes to sit down and reflect on the same questions I ask my clients to help them clarify their values. These were my answers:
What do you want your obituary to say about you and how you lived your life?
I do want my obituary to say how much I cared about helping others and how I dedicated my career to treating, researching and writing about mental health. But I also want it to say that I enjoyed my life to the fullest — that I travelled, spent time with people I loved, and did things that brought me joy, such as reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and taking spontaneous road trips.
What values can you extract from your obituary?
While I value giving to and supporting others, it’s more nuanced than that. I clearly value the balance of taking care of others with taking care of myself. I value rest, creativity, learning and spontaneity. And finally, I value choosing myself when it’s healthy to do so, which sometimes means saying no to others.
In what ways are you not living in line with these values?
I’m not taking care of myself the way I’d like to be right now. I feel overworked and depleted most days. I’m not making time to do the things I enjoy most.
What do you need in the short and long term?
In the short term, I need to prioritise self-care, which means making minor changes such as reading for pleasure before bed instead of checking my emails. I also need to say ‘no’ more, even if it feels uncomfortable. Maybe a day off in the next few weeks would be helpful, and a nice way to model self-care for my clients. Long term, I might need to change my schedule – see fewer clients, end earlier in the evening, or consider a week off to recharge.
After answering these questions, my understanding of myself and my situation had changed. Beforehand, my judgments and self-criticism had been running rampant. Afterwards, I could see for myself that I had ended up in a position that wasn’t in line with my values, and I felt empowered to prioritise my needs. You can check in with yourself – and direct your own self-compassion – by answering these questions in challenging moments, or by setting aside a scheduled time to review them once a week, a month, or a year.
The more you practise self-compassion by using these exercises, the more likely you’ll find, I hope, that the tone of your inner voice changes and that your inner critic morphs into a loving and compassionate inner friend. Feel free to pick and choose the exercises that speak most to you, recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to self-compassion – it’s deeply personal and challenging work that requires some trial and error.
Key points – How to be kinder to yourself
- Self-criticism doesn’t work. Instead of protecting you from others’ judgment, self-criticism subjects you to your own.
- Self-compassion is a beneficial alternative. It’s not about boosting your self-esteem. It’s about self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness – and it brings many mental and physical benefits.
- Self-compassion doesn’t always come easy. You might see yourself as undeserving. Remember that taking a compassionate approach to your failures and mistakes will increase your motivation to change your behaviour.
- Learn to identify self-criticism. If it’s become an ingrained habit, you might not even realise you’re doing it.
- Befriend your inner critic. This might sound counterintuitive, but it will pay off in the longer term.
- Reframe judgmental thoughts as factual ones. By doing this, you’ll dial down the self-criticism and think more constructively about how you could learn from what happened.
- Practise soothing touch. Try wrapping your arms around yourself, lying under a soft or weighted blanket, stroking your arm, or touching your hand to your heart or cheek.
- Talk to a younger version of yourself. By externalising and connecting with a version of yourself that isn’t technically present, you might find you can more easily access a compassionate approach.
- Identify your values. Self-compassion is more effective when directed towards supporting your needs, rather than being a vague promise to be kinder to yourself. To understand your needs, you must first have some sense of what you value most in life.
The social side of self-compassion
Like many others, you might find that you particularly struggle with self-compassion (and are at your most self-critical) during moments that involve emotions such as shame, disappointment or humiliation. These emotions can inspire the urge to hide, retreat and conceal – all of which create distance from the social environment. It’s a self-protective instinct, but it can be counterproductive. While it may be the last thing you feel like doing, and seem somewhat counterintuitive, often the self-compassionate thing to do in these situations is to engage with others.
For one, being around others offers the opportunity to receive compassion from them. Receiving validation from our environments is one of the ways we learn to give it to ourselves; inversely, not receiving validation from our environments (or being invalidated) can lead to self-critical patterns. Engaging with others also increases the likelihood that you see others practise self-compassion, which may make it easier for you to use these strategies because they’ve been modelled and normalised by people you trust. Finally, sometimes being in the presence of others is exactly what you need to stop your self-critical patterns in their tracks and shift the shame, disappointment or humiliation.
In fact, research shows that acting the opposite way to an emotional urge can be a meaningful way of moving away from that emotion. For example, say you’re feeling shame after sharing something personal with colleagues and your urge now is to eat lunch alone. Perhaps you have self-critical thoughts such as ‘No one wants me there anyway’ or ‘I screwed up any chance of us being friends.’ If you went ahead and ate lunch alone, this would reinforce the idea that you’ve done something wrong – something that deserves criticism. A more self-compassionate approach – one that communicates to you that you are deserving of company and having your social needs met – would be to identify a possible opposite behaviour to eating alone (eg, eating lunch with those colleagues anyway, or eating lunch at your desk while talking on the phone to your best friend) and making the decision to act on it.
Keep in mind, though, that sometimes being alone is an act of self-compassion when alone time honours a desire or need, such as rest, quiet or welcomed disconnection. Deciding whether to practise self-compassion privately or in the presence of others can be challenging for some, and a good place to start figuring out what works for you in a given moment is to ask yourself: ‘What do I really need right now?’
Links & books
Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion website is an online resource library that offers several free, guided self-compassion exercises. This can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with doing this practice on their own.
Neff’s TEDx talk from 2013 elaborates on the points of difference between self-compassion and self-esteem that I’ve made in this Guide, particularly around the science and research on self-compassion.
The blog ‘The RAIN of Self-Compassion’ (2021) on the website of the psychologist Tara Brach outlines a self-compassion meditation practice. Her acronym – ‘Recognise what is going on. Allow the experience to be there, just as it is. Investigate with interest and care. Nurture with self-compassion’ – is a helpful way of making self-compassion more easily accessible when you’re on the go.
The book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (2010) by Brené Brown is a motivational and inspiring guide to embracing imperfections. Instead of focusing on being ‘better’ and doing ‘more’, this book emphasises living authentically, which is certainly in the spirit of self-compassion.
The exercise script ‘Compassion for the Younger You’ from Russ Harris’s book The Reality Slap: How to Find Fulfilment When Life Hurts (2nd ed, 2021) can be used by readers who want further practice exploring their inner child through a meditation format. This is particularly helpful for those needing extra guidance on how to treat your inner child with love and care.