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Stop Self-Criticism With Compassionate Self-Awareness

Knowing and caring for you is an antidote for self-criticism.

Briefly, compassionate self-awareness is having an intellectual and emotional awareness of yourself that you relate to with compassion. So, with compassionate self-awareness, you:

  • Understand how you developed the problem (to the best that you can become aware of this)
  • Really experience your emotions related to the problem; and
  • Respond to yourself with the same compassion that you are likely to respond to a friend who is suffering.

Here's how you can adapt the cognitive-behavioral technique from my last blog to incorporate compassionate self-awareness:

Complete a chart (daily) with column headings: Situation, Self-Critical Thoughts, Emotions, Sources of Thoughts & Feelings, and New Compassionate Response. Below is an example of how you might fill this out:

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.

You will have trouble at first even recognizing self-critical thoughts if you think of them as being 'just the way I am' rather than a negative perception of yourself. If this describes your situation, just keep at it and give yourself a chance to develop the ability to identify self-criticism.

Also, keep in mind that believing that you can't do something is not necessarily the same as a self-criticism. It's one thing to think that you can't walk through walls; it's a totally other thing to think that you are incompetent or somehow lesser as a person because of it.

Emotions: Angry (with self), sad, despair

Many people confuse thoughts and feelings, which can interfere with identifying and connecting with your feelings. It's important to make the distinction between thoughts and feelings to accurately complete the chart, and eventually get rid of your self-criticism. If this is difficult for you, find a list of emotions someplace that you can refer to, such as on Wikipedia.

Along with labeling your emotions, it is important to be able to let yourself experience them. This can be very difficult to do and you may ask, "What's the point?" Simplified, the "point" is that in order to address a problem, you need to get to know it.

When people's emotions are strong, it is sometimes difficult to gain clarity on exactly which emotions they are feeling. And then "sitting with" emotions, rather than distracting yourself or avoiding them, can take a lot of practice. So again, be patient with yourself.

Source of thoughts/feelings: Knowing how you developed a particular response (thoughts and feelings) can help you approach it with understanding and compassion.

Continuing our example:

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.

Like the other steps, this can be a very difficult awareness to develop. So, again, you need to be patient with yourself as you work to gain an understanding of your way of thinking (whether you developed it as a way of coping as a child, it is the voice of a parent, or it has some other origin).

New Compassionate Response: By understanding your thoughts and accepting your feelings, you are more likely to naturally have a compassionate response to your experiences - even to your self-criticism.

If you struggle with finding a compassionate response, think about how you would respond to a friend. You will probably find that compassion for others comes more easily to you; and you can use this as a model for how to treat yourself.

This approach is a process of learning to nurture or mother yourself.  It is a big task, which is why I advise you to be patient through each step. Take whatever time is necessary for any particular part of the process; there is no need to complete every column for every situation. After working on one aspect (e.g. identifying emotions, "sitting with" emotions), you might find that it comes more easily the next time around; which will free you up to move on to the next section of the chart then.

While using this chart to develop compassionate self-awareness and reduce self-criticism won't work for everyone all the time, it is a good general guide for developing a positive working relationship with yourself.


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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