Living the Questions

Finding peace in uncertain times.

Compassion for the Self-Critic

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. shares why we need compassion for our self-critical voice.

These are notes I took from a session of  The Self-Acceptance Project presented by Sounds True. It's not a word-for-word transcription, but it will give you the basics and a feel for Kristin's warm tone. It's still online and free, so check it out.

Session 1: Compassion for the Self-Critic

In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Dr. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of Human Resources and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin. Kristin is the author of the book Self-Compassion and the creator of the Sounds True audio learning course Self-Compassion Step by Step. She and her family were also the subjects of the 2009 documentary and book The Horse Boy.

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What is the difference between self-esteem and self-compassion?

Self-esteem is a positive evaluation of oneself. Unfortunately, the way we have gotten our self-esteem has been by comparing ourselves to others, and it’s not seen as good enough to be average. So everyone has to be above average, and there’s obviously a flaw in that logic.  An unintended consequence of the self-esteem movement in the schools has been creating a generation of narcissistic and entitled children.

In contrast, self-compassion is not about evaluating yourself positively. It's about how you relate to yourself.

Why are we so self-critical?

Self-criticism taps into the threat/defense response. This system is hard-wired and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well. When you view yourself as the problem (I can’t believe I gained those 5 pounds back, I should’ve gotten an A on that test) the reptilian brain kicks in and attacks yourself, thus the self-critical self-talk.

Self-compassion moves you from the reptilian brain to the mammalian caregiving system of tending/befriending. Mammal’s young are designed to attach closely with the mother to stay safe. Mammals respond to warm, soft touch and a soothing voice. So a great self-compassion technique is a physical gesture of affection, such as putting your hand on your heart and saying words to yourself in a supportive, soothing tone. Research is showing that the tone of voice in how we talk to ourselves is very important.

We have to let go of self-criticism as the problem, though. We have to have compassion for the self critic. Self-criticism comes from a desire to keep ourselves safe. So we first have to have compassion for the critical voice. The self-critical voice needs to be heard, and then paradoxically it can quiet down. Then you can bring in self-compassion techniques. You can say to  yourself,  “I want to keep you safe too, but I want to do it in a more effective way.”

You talk about self-compassion having three components. Can you talk more about that?

Yes, the first component is self-kindness, which we just discussed--talking to ourselves in a kind, gentle way and offering ourselves the support we need.

Another aspect of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity. In essence, acknowledging that everyone is flawed: this is part of the human experience. It helps to remember that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling. Isolation also has an evolutionary explanation. If you get disconnected from the group, you get eaten by the lion…so it's very scary! That’s why we need to remind ourselves that suffering, being flawed and imperfect, is a part of life.

The third component is mindfulness: being able to recognize in the moment when you’re suffering. It’s amazing how much negative self-talk goes on just under your awareness. We teach formal meditation, but research is showing that the informal self-compassion techniques we’re teaching are just as effective. Self-compassion isn’t that hard. We have these skills that we use for our friends or our children. We just have to remember to do it for ourselves.

Why do we have such trouble with being compassionate with ourselves?

There are really two very closely related reasons. One, when we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control. Self-judgment says that if only I would have tried harder, things would've worked out. It's scary to admit how little control we sometimes have. Two, we really believe that we need self-criticism to motivate ourselves. This is the number one reason people give for not wanting to be self-compassionate. They are afraid they’ll be lazy or not do what they need to do. However, when we are in a self-critical place, this is the worst possible mindset in which to do our best.

In conclusion, Kristin led viewers in a “Self-Compassion Break.” 

Think of something you're struggling with. Assume a self-compassion posture, such as the hand on the heart. Say to yourself in a kind tone of voice, “This is a moment of suffering,” or “This is really hard right now.” – “Suffering is a part of life; I'm not alone in this. Other people feel the same way.”—“May I be kind to myself in this moment and may I give myself the kindness I need.”

The Self-Acceptance Project is a series of audio/video recordings with noted researchers, teachers, and thought leaders in this area, brought to you by Sounds True. It's a wonderful resource, and it's free.

 

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Photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography

 

Dr. Barbara Markway, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over twenty years of experience. She is the author of four popular psychology books and has been featured in media nationwide.

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