Jennifer Rollin MSW, LCSW-C

Mindful Musings

Are You Emotionally Abusing Yourself?

You can learn how to treat yourself more kindly.

Posted Mar 21, 2018

tommaso79/Shutterstock
Source: tommaso79/Shutterstock

We all have that “inner critic” voice in our heads. It's a nagging and persistent voice that tells us unkind, judgmental, or mean things. While it is impossible to completely get rid of your “inner critic,” you can take away a lot of its power through the practice of self-compassion.

Some of my clients' inner critics are downright emotionally abusive. Many of my clients struggle with saying incredibly harsh things to themselves that they would never say to anyone else. 

When they first come to meet with me for therapy, often they don't even realize how mean they are being to themselves. Many of us are aware of the devastating impact that emotional abuse can have on people; however, it's less common to talk about the impact of emotionally abusing yourself.

A variety of factors could contribute to people developing an abusive relationship with themselves. One might be internalizing emotional abuse that you experienced from someone else and unintentionally re-enacting it through your own inner critic. Another might be having an intense fear of judgment from others, so one subconsciously wants to "beat them to the punch." Additionally, having a trauma history, or struggling with an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or self-harm can all contribute to developing a very harsh inner critic.

Learning about the practice of self-compassion has transformed my life, both personally and professionally.

Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is not some New Age concept for the spiritually enlightened. Rather it is a practice that can have transformative power in our lives. Practicing self-compassion is also not the same thing as being self-centered. Self-compassion is simply treating yourself with the same kindness and care that you would extend to someone you love.

Additionally, self-compassion is different from self-esteem, in that self-esteem often hinges on external accomplishments. Thus, self-esteem is prone to fluctuate depending on one’s perceived successes and setbacks. However, self-compassion is always available to us, regardless of our external circumstances.

According to self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff, the three components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness entails being understanding and warm to ourselves when we fail or make mistakes. Common humanity is simply recognizing that suffering and setbacks are normal and expected parts of life that everyone will encounter. The element of mindfulness involves observing our emotions and thoughts in a nonjudgmental manner.

Putting It Into Practice

1. Mindfully notice any self-critical thoughts that you are having.

The first step is to simply start noticing (without judgement) any self-critical thoughts that you are having. Try not to beat yourself up for having these thoughts. Instead, practice mindfulness and making space for any thoughts or emotions as they arise. Emotions and thoughts are not "right" or "wrong"; they simply exist. While some thinking patterns may be "unhelpful," you can learn to change your relationship with those thoughts so that they have less power over you.

2. Acknowledge that you are not alone in what you are experiencing.

The next step is to acknowledge that you are not alone in what you are experiencing. Whether you feel that you have fallen short, made a mistake, or had a setback, it’s important to recognize that this is part of the human experience. You are certainly not alone in this. Further, a life without experiences of failure, setbacks, and mistakes would likely lack meaning and growth.

3. Practice responding to yourself with kindness.

A crucial part of self-compassion is practicing responding to yourself with kindness, both through words and actions. I often will have clients dialogue their thoughts.

Example:

Inner Critic: Really? You are leaving the house looking like that? You are so ugly and disgusting. You don't deserve to go out in public looking like that.

Compassionate Voice: I'm sorry that you are feeling so badly about yourself today. It's perfectly understandable, given that you are feeling stressed about fighting with your boyfriend, and your body is an easy target. You are not seeing yourself accurately. Even so, your appearance is really the least interesting thing about you. You deserve to be able to go out and enjoy a fun day with your friends no matter what you look like. They don't care! They just want to spend time with you.

In addition to speaking to yourself gently and kindly, you can practice acts of self-compassion, which could include taking time out for self-care, setting healthy boundaries with others, practicing "opposite action" when you are feeling urges to engage in eating disorder or self-harm behaviors, and doing kind things for yourself.

The Bottom Line

Like any other skill, self-compassion is a practice, and it can take time for this way of responding to yourself to become ingrained. If your current emotional default setting is harsh self-criticism, it will take some time to rewire your neural pathways to make the self-compassion response feel more natural. Therefore, it’s especially important that you do not “beat yourself up” for not always being compassionate with yourself. Ultimately, you deserve to treat yourself with the same kindness and care that you give to the people you love.