Resolving Self-Criticism by Learning Self-Compassion

Many people criticise themselves inside their own heads without even realising that they're doing it. When they make a mistake, have an unwanted feeling, or perform at less than their normal standard, rather than learning from their difficulties and moving on, self-critical people make themselves feel even worse by beating themselves up about it. They speak to themselves internally in ways that they wouldn't usually speak to others, and wouldn't accept if others spoke that way to them.

Does this sound like you? Do you think that it's helping you to be a better person? If your friends spoke to you that way, would you enjoy their company? Would you keep going to a therapist who treated you the way you treat yourself? Are you at ease in your own company?

People who struggle with self-criticism can cause themselves a great deal of unnecessary suffering. It can be hard to get a break from your own mind, and just relax and enjoy things. On the other hand, self-critical people are often very compassionate towards others, but they struggle to turn that compassion around, and apply it to themselves. What would life be like if you were as nice to yourself as you are to your friends?

Emotions, Compassion and Your Brain

All people experience emotions, and most of us prefer to experience so-called positive emotions (happiness, love), and prefer to avoid so-called negative emotions (fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame). Some people are taught that certain emotions (for instance anger or fear) are not acceptable to express, and they have learned to suppress or avoid them.

Strong preferences for or avoidance of emotions puts us at a disadvantage; our emotions are there to guide us, and being able to experience and learn from our natural range of emotions helps us to be wiser about our decisions and actions.

For example, consider the message that these emotions might be giving you:

  • Sadness: you have lost something valuable. If a cherished pet died, would you want to be able feel sadness, to tell you how important your pet was to you?
  • Fear: you may be in danger. Could you keep yourself safe around people you've just met if you lost the ability to feel fear?
  • Anger: this circumstance is not to your liking. If nobody had ever felt anger, would we have made slavery illegal in our society?
  • Disgust: I don't want to interact with this. If you could not feel disgust, how could you avoid things that might make you sick?
  • Happiness: I want more of this. Happiness tells you to carry on doing what you're doing.

According to Paul Gilbert, a researcher and clinician in the United Kingdom, our brain has different systems to help us to regulate emotions:

  1. Threat: this system helps us to stay safe by noticing potential threats in our environments, and preparing us to deal with them. We survived the challenges of our evolutionary past because this system kept us vigilant, looking for danger all around us, in our social interactions, and in our imaginations. It is an old, well-developed and powerful part of our brains, and can shut down most other brain functions when we think that we are in danger.
  2. Reward: this system is active when the threat system is not, and it motivates us to seek out things that are good for our survival, like food, shelter and suitable companions.
  3. Compassion: our compassion system is activated when we want to soothe and recover from difficult experiences, and it encourages us to connect with others. When we are young, if we feel frightened or unwell, we go to a caregiver for soothing and comforting contact. This helps us to reduce our distress and recover from whatever was bothering us.

Our brains have developed to solve complicated problems for us, and we make use of imagination, anticipation, memory and planning to help us to solve these problems. Because we evolved in a difficult environment with many predators and scarce food resources, we have a bias towards threat and reward based thinking. Our compassion system is less of a survival priority, so it is harder to activate.

Learning mindfulness skills can help you to get out of your threat and reward systems, and focus your attention on the present moment. By choosing to pay attention to the here and now, you can learn to deliberately activate your compassion system, and enjoy more soothing of your emotions.

What's All this Got to Do with Self-Criticism?

If you have been lucky enough to have experienced only loving compassion from other people throughout your life, then you are unlikely to have problems with self-criticism. People are not born self critical- they learn to criticise themselves because they internalise the messages they heard around them. When we are young and figuring out how the world works, we tend to believe what people tell us.

What messages did you get during your childhood and adolescence about yourself? Did you learn to replay some of the more difficult or critical messages in your own mind so that you could protect yourself from hearing them from others? Are you still doing this to yourself now, when you don't need to protect yourself from those people anymore? Are the messages you are replaying to yourself helping you to be a calm, comfortable and happy human being?

How Can Self-Compassion Help?

If you are noticing that you are self critical and it is having a negative effect on yourself, then learning to engage your compassionate mind could help you to enjoy life more.

Here are some steps you can take to develop self compassion:

  1. Notice when you criticise yourself. Ask yourself: Where did I learn this? Is this helpful to me? What would I say to a friend who needed support in my situation? Say what you would say to a friend to yourself, instead of the criticism.
  2. When you are struggling, try taking care of yourself. Do something nice for yourself, make time for some rest, a treat or a pleasant activity. Talk to someone supportive. Be kind to yourself.
  3. Learn the practice of compassionate mindfulness, and use it when you notice yourself being self critical. Use this practice to break the cycle of self criticism.

A Compassionate Mind Exercise

Start by slowing your breathing, and deliberately sighing when you exhale. Take your hand and place it about an inch over your chest, over your heart. You don't need to touch your heart, you can hover over it with your hand.

Imagine compassion flowing into you from your hand. Notice if you feel any heat while maintaining the soothing breathing.

See if you can associate a colour to the compassion, a soft colour that you like, and let it flow into the rest of your body. See if you can develop forgiveness and compassion for yourself, and everything you have been through. Stay with this for 2 minutes.

Now gently come back to the compassion coming from your hand, into your heart and from there into your body. Now open your hands and imagine the compassion flowing out to others around you, sharing it with everyone. Allow 1 minute for this.

Now getting in touch with your breath, again. Try to be thankful for the gift of compassion and kindness. Commit to practicing this exercise, daily if you can.

Some people like to include a loving kindness mantra to their mindfulness practice. This is a set of statements that you offer to yourself, then to a loved one, then to a person you struggle with, then to a person you see regularly but don't really know, and then to all beings in the universe. This practice helps you to develop and deepen your compassion for yourself and others. Here is an example of a loving kindness mantra:

May you be happy and healthy.
May your heart be open and honest.
May you be free from ignorance and illusion.
May you reach your full potential.

The Perfect Nurturer

Some people find it difficult to be compassionate towards themselves, although they are good at offering compassion to others. If you struggle to share compassion with yourself, you may find it helpful to develop a compassionate image called the Perfect Nurturer. Use your memory or your imagination to choose a person, animal or object that embodies for you the perfect nurturer, something that can offer you compassion and understanding, and help you to heal from the things you have been through. The compassionate image can then be the source of the light in the above exercise, rather than you, but in the long run, the goal is for you to develop compassion for yourself!

For More Information

Academic References

Gilbert, P & Procter, S (2006) Compassionate Mind Training for People with High Shame and Self-Criticism: Overview and Pilot Study of a Group Therapy Approach. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 13, 353–379.

Lee, DA (2005) The perfect nurturer: A model to develop a compassionate mind within the context of cognitive therapy. In: Gilbert, Paul (Ed). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. (pp. 326-351). New York, NY, US: Routledge.