We have all done it at one time or another – in a difficult moment when we already feel emotional pain, we send a second arrow of suffering toward ourselves with critical self-talk. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone else, and on some level, we feel we deserve it.
Our harsh words may vary, but the themes are often similar—“What was I thinking?”?” “I’m so stupid” “What is wrong with me?” “I’m worthless” or “I’ll never be good enough.” Sound familiar?
Once the self-critical thoughts begin, they usually continue their downward spiral. Not only are these thoughts unhelpful, but they can increase feelings of anxiety and depression.
What keeps us from letting go of self-criticism?
The habit may be so automatic that we may not even be aware in the moment that it’s happening. If we are aware of it, we may not know how to stop talking to ourselves so harshly. Or perhaps we mistakenly believe that if we stop being hard on ourselves, we will be lazy and unmotivated, even though research suggests otherwise.
Studies have shown that people who treat themselves with kindness and compassion are more likely to achieve their goals than people who are self-critical. Studies also indicate that treating ourselves with compassion can decrease anxiety and depression.
Self-compassion is the practice of being aware of our own suffering and feeling a warm and heartfelt desire to relieve our suffering. As with most habits, it is possible to change the habit self-criticism and develop a new habit of self-compassion. We can do this with the following practices:
1. Mindfulness practice. We can begin by bringing mindful awareness to the pain that the self-criticism is causing. With an attitude of kindness, we might say something to ourselves along the lines of, “Oh, I notice that I’m saying unkind things to myself, and this increases suffering.” Noticing what we are doing and naming it silently to ourselves interrupts the thought pattern. It creates a pause that increases our ability to respond to our own experience with greater awareness and intention.
2. Compassion meditation. Bring your awareness to the area surrounding your heart. Try to imagine that your heart is filled with bright light. Imagine breathing the pain caused by self-criticism into your heart. Try to envision the light of your heart transforming the pain into kindness and compassion. See if you can hold an intention in your heart of being aware of your suffering and feeling a warm and heartfelt desire to relieve your own suffering. As you exhale, imagine the bright light of your breath, filled with kindness and compassion, moving throughout your entire being and outward toward others. Pause for a few moments to notice the good sensations and feelings of this experience of self-compassion.
With repeated practice, we can begin to increase self-compassion. In the beginning, it’s not unusual to have difficulty connecting with a heartfelt desire to relieve our own suffering. If this happens, we can try to practice noticing with kind awareness what limits us from the experience of self-compassion.
In addition to this self-compassion practice, we can also practice approaching our everyday experiences with kindness and compassion. As we practice bringing focused attention and intention toward cultivating self-compassion, our capacity to experience self-compassion increases, and the painful and automatic habit of self-criticism begins to decrease.
Practicing self-compassion can help us to feel calmer and more peaceful. In addition, it enables us to achieve our intentions and goals with greater success and ease. As we say, don’t believe me, try it for yourself. Changing any habit requires practice and consistency, so try to be kind and patient with yourself as you practice.
Jen Johnson, MS, MFA, BCC, LCMHC is a mindfulness coach and therapist teaching people how to create a peaceful and inspired life that they love waking up to. Jen teaches online courses on mindfulness, creativity, and resilience. https://jenjohnson.com.