Sometimes I get to the end of my day and I feel beat up, not physically, on the outside, but emotionally, on the inside. Inevitably when this happens, it’s because I’ve had a day where I feel like I’ve let people down. Maybe it’s my clients, or my children or my spouse. Often, it’s me.
Even though I know a lot about setting realistic expectations and being forgiving of imperfection, I still find myself once in a while sucked down into the painful vortex of self- criticism.
“Why didn’t I call that client to let them know I was running late?”
“Why didn’t I remember my best friend’s birthday was today?”
“How could I be so selfish as to snap at my husband when he brought home the wrong kind of flour when I knew he was just trying to help me out.”
“I didn’t even start the project I promised myself I’d be done with by now. How can I even think I could be successful at this!”
It’s shocking to realize that I’m pretty brutal to myself when no one can hear. I’d never dream of saying any of these things to someone else. And what’s weird is that I rarely even think those thoughts about others.
As I talk with women about the way they think of themselves and speak to themselves, I find that I’m not alone.
We’re all battling the inner critic.
Not because we’re broken.
But because we’ve learned a quick and easy way to deal with negative things in our life that makes us feel like we have some control. It feels like control, but it’s actually deceiving. Blaming and beating ourselves up for things that don’t match up to our expectations can give us a false feeling of power and control.
It’s important to know that all of us have this tendency to one degree or another because we all have brains- and self-criticism is a brain thing.
It’s one way that our brain tries to keep us safe.
This begins in the way our brains develop. When we were young and had under-developed brains, we saw the world through very ego-centric eyes. Which means, that we attributed everything going on around us as having to do with us. For instance, kids whose parents are divorcing often think that the divorce is somehow their fault.
For a kid who actually has very little power, thinking they’re responsible for things, even bad things is a better feeling than feeling helpless.
As we grow, we eventually learn that life isn’t as black and white as we thought and people are human and make mistakes. But when we perceive our own mistakes, we often slip back into that black and white thinking and come down hard on ourselves.
If we experienced criticism from parents or teachers while growing up, then we may be even more likely to hear that inner critic in our head.
Think of your inner critic as your guardian trying to protect you.
When you attribute blame for something to yourself, it creates a sense of control, but it also can hurt you. Holding ourselves to rigid and harsh expectations can cause terrible suffering. It’s like we have a little guardian inside our heads who’s measuring our every response to things to make sure that we don’t do it wrong.
Because doing it wrong feels dangerous.
And our inner critic thinks that if there’s danger, then she’d better get loud and scary to motivate us to get to safety.
This inner critic is stuck in survival mode and old, immature ways of trying to keep us safe. We need to recognize that though she’s trying to protect us, we can do a much better job by using compassion to help us.
Self-compassion is being kind, understanding and forgiving of yourself in all situations, especially when you’re feeling inadequate or like you’ve let yourself or someone else down.
When you practice self-compassion, you choose to separate what you do from who you are. The mistakes you may make or ways in which you let yourself or other down do not have the power to define your worth. Your worth is unconditional, completely separate from what you do.
This is usually a difficult concept for most of us to grasp, especially if we grew up in a highly critical or abusive environment.
It’s also easy to confuse self-compassion with making excuses or being narcissistic. But showing compassion to yourself is actually neither of these things. It is the healthiest thing you can do. It is a way of relating to yourself that you can always count on, through the good times and the bad. (To read more about what Self Compassion is NOT, check out Kristen Neff’s website.)
Self-compassion becomes that steadying force that allows you to recognize that because you’re human, you’re imperfect and all human beings deserve room to make mistakes and room to be treated with understanding and kindness. When you can do that, there’s space to see yourself more clearly and even make the changes you need to make.
We may not be able to permanently silence our inner critic, but we can put an arm around her and help her see that withholding compassion doesn’t motivate us at all, it actually causes more harm.
Self-compassion is a better way.
Here a few things you can start doing today to help you build your self-compassion!
- Think about how you would talk to and treat your dear friend if she were in your shoes.
Most of us have a deeper well of compassion for those we care about. You would probably not call them names and be unkind. Why shouldn’t we treat ourselves with the same consideration? The next time that inner critic goes off on you in your head, take a deep breath and pause. Just because you hear the criticism doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Just pause and in that little gap, imagine your best friend standing before you, those harsh thoughts coming at her like arrows ready to pierce her heart. How would you defend her? If it were me, I’d get her attention, look her in the eye and give her my best “I love you, you’re wonderful and don’t feel like you have to be perfect” speech. I’d fight for her! So, guess what we get to do for ourselves? That’s right! Show up for you and give yourself a little compassion!
2. Give yourself permission to be imperfect.
A friend of mine has a grandmother who when she’d make a mistake, would tell her that everyone gets 10 mistakes a day and this was just one of her 10. What a great way to frame being human and imperfect. It’s literally impossible to be perfect. That’s probably my favorite realization of all time. If something is impossible, shouldn’t we surrender to the truth and embrace the fact that we are all going to make mistakes, and it’s ok? When you hear that inner critic railing on you for something you forgot or someone you let down, practice saying this out loud: “Well, I just made one of my quota of mistakes today! I guess that’s a reminder that I’m human.” If you can say this with a quick shrug of your shoulders and a deep breath not only will you feel a little comforted but those around you, especially your kids, will learn how to gracefully acknowledge mistakes without letting them crush you.
3. Try talking to your inner critic and thanking her for trying to motivate you and then gently tell her that you are going to practice a better way. The more you recognize the fear in that inner criticism, the more you can show compassion for her. (Do you see how that is a clever way to get around your critic and show yourself compassion?)
Your inner critic is just trying to protect you. Once you recognize that, you can learn to hear her harsh words as a terrified child trying desperately to gain some control. If one of your kids was going through a stage where she hit her head against the floor when she made a mistake or refused to come out of her room for fear of being embarrassed, hopefully, you would seek to soothe and comfort her, not yell at her or join her in her punishment. You’d explain that you could see that she meant well but being harsh with herself was only going to make things worse. Put an arm around your own inner critic like you would your kiddo and then do what you know is the more loving and mature thing to do. Compassion is the balm that soothes our pain and lets us move forward in this messy world.
Learning to move from criticism to compassion is a game changer in creating the life you want to lead. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Please comment in the section below so we can all learn together how to be more self-compassionate!