Our sense of self is often a divided thing. Most of us have a side that is always “on our own team.” It encourages and supports us. It helps us fight for what we want and believes in what we can achieve. However, there is often an opposite force in each of us that is our worst enemy. It insults, critiques, questions, and undermines us. It keeps us from pursuing our goals and punishes us for our mistakes. This is the side that my father, Dr. Robert Firestone, calls the “anti-self.”
In our work, my father and I often talk about how and why this anti-self emerges, and how to challenge the negative line of thinking it perpetuates, which we call the “critical inner voice.” One exercise we ask people to do is to try writing down their self-critical thoughts in the second person—i.e., “You are such a loser. You can’t get anything right.” We then suggest that the people write down realistic and compassionate response to these thoughts, the way one might respond to a friend saying these things about themselves. We ask that people write these statements in the first person: "I am not a loser. I have many strengths, and I don’t have to beat myself up when I make a mistake.”
The second part of this exercise can be challenging and unexpectedly emotional for people. It’s often difficult to stand up to our critical inner voices—particularly when so many of us struggle with low self-esteem. Input from others is often perceived as additional criticism, and can trigger us and set off even more critical inner voices; our responses may range from feeling victimized or overly defensive to exaggerating and needing to build ourselves up. The attitude we need to adopt in order to stand up to our inner critic, though, is one that is scientifically proven to be highly beneficial to our overall mental health and well-being. That attitude is self-compassion.
Kristin Neff is a leading researcher on self-compassion. This November, I have the honor of speaking with her in a one-hour webinar about her findings on the many benefits of self-compassion. Her research has shown that, in many ways, self-compassion is more beneficial to our psychological well-being than self-esteem because it is associated with “greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.”
Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluation or judgment in general. Self-esteem can be problematic, because it’s often contingent on what we accomplish. It can rise and fall with our successes and failures and actually fuel our critical inner voice. In contrast, self-compassion involves a consistent attitude of kindness and acceptance toward ourselves as a whole. As Neff writes:
“People feel compassion for themselves, because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits.”
According to Neff, self-compassion involves three main elements:
Adopting these attitudes leads to many rewards. By fostering self-kindness, we can steer away from judging ourselves too harshly, and we can return to this attitude any time life doesn’t go our way. “We can’t always get what we want. We can’t always be who we want to be,” Neff says. “When this reality is denied or resisted, suffering arises in the form of stress, frustration, and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with benevolence, however, we generate positive emotions of kindness and care that help us cope.”
By practicing mindfulness, we reduce our tendency to ruminate on problems or negative forms of thinking that are not conducive to real growth or change. The practice of self-compassion can help us avoid the trappings of self-limiting or destructive thought processes, like the critical inner voice, that often diminish our motivation or initiative. Neff’s findings show that self-compassion can reduce anxiety and actually help us make real changes in our lives.
Finally, by promoting a sense of common humanity, we can stop seeing ourselves from a victimized or narcissistic vantage point. Instead, we can accept, as Neff says, that:
"All humans suffer. The very definition of being ‘human’ means that one is mortal, vulnerable, and imperfect. Therefore, self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone."
The rewards of self-compassion are extensive and can be explored in greater detail in Neff’s book, Self-Compassion. One of her key findings is that self-compassion has a significant positive association with:
We all face struggles, big and small, internal and external. The pursuit of self-compassion allows us to face these obstacles with a sense that we are on our own team, and part of a larger team. We can have feeling for our inherent value, while addressing the things we seek to change. We can learn to tune out the critical inner voice that holds us back and establish a healthy and authentic sense of self.