Image Point Fr/Shutterstock
Source: Image Point Fr/Shutterstock

Do you ever hear a little voice chattering away in your head that fills you with self-doubt? Perhaps you’ve heard it saying “You’re not good enough,” “You’re so lazy,” or even “You’re such an idiot.” It’s the voice of self-criticism that says things to you that you would never dare say to anyone else. But you’ve gotten so used to it trying to drive you forward or keep you safe that now you’re afraid to tell it to knock it off. I call it my "mean girl" voice. And, between you and me, she can be vicious.

When you were a child, chances are that your parents or a teacher used some harsh words to try to make you change your behavior and do the right thing. Whether it worked on us or not, such early experiences seem to leave us with a deep belief that if we're really hard on ourselves about what we did or didn’t do, about who we are and how we should be, we’ll be able to become the people we’re meant to be.

But does it really work?

Researchers suggest probably not. Kelly McGonigal at Stanford University has found that self-criticism is actually far more destructive than helpful. In one set of studies that followed hundreds of people trying to meet a wide range of goals—from losing to weight to pursuing academic goals and improving social relationships or job performance—the researchers found that the more people criticized themselves, the slower their progress over time, and the less likely they were to achieve their goal.

In fact, neuroscientists suggest that self-criticism actually shifts the brain into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment that causes us to disengage from our goals.  Leaving us feeling threatened and demoralized, this self-criticism seems to put the brakes on our plans to take action, leaving us stuck in a cycle of rumination, procrastination, and self-loathing.

Let me be clear: It’s not that my mean girl voice makes it impossible for me to achieve things. Often I’ll push through all the noise just to try to prove she’s not right. It’s just that its vitriol distracts me, slows me down, and wears me out. I’d love to find a gentler and more effective way to achieve the things that matter to me.

But is there an alternative?

Kristen Neff and her colleagues at the University of Texas suggest that tapping into our self-compassion—or, as I like to call it, my "kind girl" voice—can help us break our entrenched patterns of self-criticism, while still allowing us to be honest about our fears.

Let me be clear: This isn’t about giving yourself permission to not show up, to let yourself off the hook, or to blame others. Rather, think of your self-compassionate voice as a wise and supportive mentor, or a kind friend who’s encouraging you to see things in a clearer, more balanced way, to help you remember that no one is perfect and to be kind, understanding, and accountable to yourself.

Neff explains that these three core qualities—mindfulness, connectedness, and self-kindness—help us to see that our self-critical voices aren’t really trying to harm us, but are often unnecessarily harsh in a misguided effort to protect us. Instead of taming, shaming, or blaming these voices for undermining our confidence, self-compassion has shown to help reduce our levels of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt by allowing us to see them for what they are—just stories about the things we fear, and not the truth about who we are or what we’re capable of.

As a result, studies have found that self-compassion helps us to generate more positive feelings that balance out our fears, allowing us to feel more joyous, calm and confident. It helps us to activate our brain’s care-giving and self-awareness systems, making it easier to believe that we are capable and worthy. It makes us less self-conscious, less likely to compare ourselves to others, and less likely to feel insecure. Far from being self-indulgent or “soft,” the deliberate use of self-compassionate talk has proven to be an effective means of enhancing our motivation, performance, and resilience.

How can you practice more self-compassion?

Neff suggests that self-compassion is a teachable skill that is “dose dependent"—the more you practice it, the better you get. Here are three ways to begin:

  • Identify what you really want by thinking about the ways that you use self-criticism as a motivator (I’m too overweight, I’m too lazy, I’m too impulsive) because you think being hard on yourself will help you change. What language would a wise and nurturing mentor or friend use to gently point out how your behavior is unproductive, while encouraging you to do something different? What’s the most supportive message you can think of that’s in line with your underlying wish to be healthy and happy as it relates to these changes? Write this down and put it somewhere you can see it each day.
     
  • Keep a self-compassion journal for a week (or longer if you like). Write down anything you’ve felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, or any difficult experience that has caused you pain. For each event, practice using your kindness, sense of connectedness to humanity, and mindfulness to process the event in a more self-compassionate way.
     
  • Create a self-compassion mantra. I found that my self-critical voice was quick to remind me that I wasn’t really good enough, so I started gently countering this with my self-compassionate voice, which reminded me, "In most situations, you’re better than you think you are.” This kind reminder was enough to slow down the negative spiral of fear and self-doubt so I could mindfully attend to what was actually unfolding and make better-informed choices about what I wanted to do. Try to create your own self-compassion mantra by thinking about what a wise mentor or kind friend would say in these moments, and focus on these during times of self-doubt.

If you were to try a little self-compassion right now, and speak to yourself like you would any other good friend, where would you start?

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