In my last blog entry, Stop Self-Criticism With Compassionate Self-Awareness, I offered a way to help you stop being self-critical. The last part of the approach included advice to respond to yourself with more compassion.
Consider the example I used in the last blog entry:
Situation: Alice won when we played tennis, and (like always) she went on about how she's better than me.
Self-Critical Thoughts: She's right; I'm such a loser. I'm no good at tennis or anything.
Emotions: Angry (with self), sad, despair
Source of thoughts/feelings: I remember thinking and feeling this way when I was a kid. Back then, I had an undiagnosed learning disability that made doing many things hard; too hard. So, I ended up telling myself I was a failure all the time; and feeling sad and despairing a lot. The voice I'm hearing now is that same child voice.
After identifying all of these parts of your experience, I suggested that you respond to yourself with compassion. But this might still be difficult for you. In this example, you might say, "Yeah, I know why I tend to think I'm incompetent, but I should just get over it already."
If this is where you get stuck, I suggest that you consider the following 3-step approach to responding compassionately to your self-criticisms. These steps are: understanding your thinking, validating your emotions, and finally providing a compassionate alternative.
Understand your thinking
Given my childhood experiences, I can understand why I came to think of myself as a failure. These thoughts happened so much and so often that they became a part of who I am - so it makes sense that they are with me even today.
Validate your emotions
It's only natural that as a child I felt angry with myself, sad, and despairing. And, it's only natural that those same feeling would come back when I'm in similar situations.
The reality is that I wasn't a failure as a child - I struggled because of my learning disability. Once I learned how to learn in a way that suited me better, I did better at a lot of things. And just because I fall back to seeing myself as a loser sometimes, that doesn't mean it is true now any more than it was true then.
Unlike Alice who played tennis on her high school team and has continued to play through her life, I just began playing about a year ago. So, it makes sense that she would be better than me at this. But, again, that does not mean that I'm a loser. I will get better the more I practice. And, even if I never get really good at it, I'm really creative; and there is much more to my life than tennis.
Rather than imposing a 'rational' alternative to your self-criticism (one which you are likely to reject), self-compassion will develop as a natural consequence of this whole process.
But if you still struggle with finding a compassionate response, think about how you would respond to a friend - this will likely result in a naturally more compassionate response.
Most importantly, give yourself a chance to work through (and wrestle with) this process many times. When you get impatient with yourself, consider how many times in your life that you have been self-critical - no doubt, too many to count. So, it only follows that developing a new way to respond to yourself will take time, effort, and experience to replace your old ways. But as you attain increased self-compassion, you will enjoy a new openness, increased resilience, and sense of well-being that you can enjoy for a lifetime.
Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD's Relationships and Coping Community.
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