So many of us suffer from a harsh inner critic. We speak to ourselves in ways we would never imagine speaking to a loved one, and often in the moments when we most need to know that we are loved and supported.
The pain caused by the (seemingly) self-inflicted harm of our inner critic is one of the most widespread and downplayed sources of mental suffering in our society today. Unfortunately, some forms of inner criticism are actually upheld as 'productive'. We are taught (implicitly, by example, or explicitly) to use criticism or shame to motivate ourselves to do better, which is why self-criticism is arguably not self-inflicted, but rather an internalized expression of domination and suppression, a learned social behavior that we adopted to survive.
The Power of Self-Compassion
If you have experienced a harsh internal critic, you are not alone. Many of us at Self-Care Is For Everyone have (and still) struggle with internal critics. Sometimes something as small as a negative comment on an Instagram post can set off a barrage of inner criticism: "Oh my goodness, are they right? How could I be so ignorant? How could I be so sloppy? I'm such a fool." And sure, we can brush it off and say "psssh. I don't care what one person thinks." But the truth is, we kinda do. As biological human creatures who evolved from other biological human creatures, we are encoded to care; to our nervous systems, it can feel like our lives depend on it.
Which can be exhausting.
We at Self-Care are passionate about creating a space to destigmatize conversation about mental health, a space where we all feel encouraged and uplifted, and where we can share practices and information that empowers healing. When we started to see how powerful our own struggle with inner critics could be, we knew it was something we wanted to talk about.
And gosh are we excited to share what we've learned about developing a healthier relationship to our inner critics! For, while there is no magic solution (to, like, anything) we have found a practice that consistently seems to increase our inner-resilience in moments of suffering, and is available always — even when we have performed poorly or 'messed up'.
Drum roll, please. It is the practice of self-compassion!
P.S. For this post, we pulled mainly from Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Chris Germer's work, as they are considered two of the initiators of modern scientific interest in self-compassion research. However, there are many other incredible humans out there working in self-compassion (and also many ancient traditions), and there is so much more to say than one blog has space for. So, since we think this practice is so powerful (and accessible!), this is far from the last time we will be talking about self-compassion. Keep your eyes out for more resources soon!
What is Self-Compassion?
According to Dr Kristin Neff, an academic and psychologist at the vanguard of quantitative self-compassion research, the practice of self-compassion is, quite simply, "to honor and accept your humanness". Though we each have unique paths and experiences of suffering, we are at the same time deeply united in this human journey through our experiences: of joy, imperfection, grief, insecurity, love, and so much more. No matter who we are, there will be moments when things feel 'all wrong'. When we feel frustrated. When we experience loss. But when we can begin to experience these moments with more kindness towards ourselves and with a recognition that we are not alone in feeling these things, we not only gain increased resilience to move through the experience, we may also improve our overall wellbeing in the long term.
"The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life."
We'll get into a bit of the physiology of self-compassion below, but first, let's get a better grip on what exactly self-compassion IS– and how to practice it. According to Dr. Neff, a self-compassion practice consists of three general parts: Mindfulness + Kindness & Warmth + Recognition of Common Humanity.
To see things as they are, self-compassion asks us to become aware of our feelings and sensations, so that we can notice when we may be spiraling into painful thought patterns. If we feel a heaviness near our heart, or notice shame or frustration arising after being criticized by our teacher or coworker, we can pause and listen more deeply to what is happening inside us. In listening, we engage in equanimous or nonjudgmental awareness, meaning we are willing to observe our negative thoughts and emotions without trying to immediately make them go away.
"Self-compassion...requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated...mindfulness requires that we not be 'over-identified' with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity."
In short, we can experience awareness of our thoughts and emotions as we experience observing the weather. If the thoughts and emotions are like the clouds, then we are like the sky that holds them and allows them to pass through. This meditation practice from Jon Kabat-Zinn is super helpful!
Kindness & Warmth
Once mindfulness enables us to notice our suffering, practicing self-kindness allows us to send warmth and love to the parts of us that are hurting. If the idea of sending yourself kindness makes you feel strange, don't give up just yet! There is widespread resistance to the idea of being kind to ourselves. Our entire team has experienced it, too. Common concerns about starting a self-compassion practice include "but if I'm kind to myself, I won't be productive" or "I'll just make up a bunch of excuses". Additionally, many of us have been socialized to believe that being kind to ourselves (or even to others) is a sign of weakness. Thankfully, science shows that the opposite is true.
"Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism."
In truth, to practice self-compassion is a brave decision. When we engage compassionately with ourselves, we are actually turning toward our experience instead of trying to make the pain just disappear (which would be a form of resisting or denying our pain). As Dr Neff explains, we have to first fully accept the fact that what we are experiencing is painful to then be able to more honestly support ourselves through the pain.
Recognition of Common Humanity
When struggling to extend compassion or kindness to ourselves, it can be helpful to recognize that suffering and feelings of inadequacy are part of the shared human experience. You are not the only person who feels like they just can't get it together right now. You are not alone in feeling lonely. You are not alone in feeling concern for what comes next, for how you're performing in your job or at school or as a parent or as a child. You are not the only person who said something they didn't mean when they were hurt. You are not the only person who has done something for which you've been taught to feel great shame. You are not the only one who is scared but pretending to feel brave, or who smiles but feels deeply sad inside sometimes. To experience these things is hard. It hurts. Please know that you are not alone in your pain.
"The feeling that certain things 'shouldn’t' be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference."
When we begin to feel the truth of our connectedness in this way, something pretty cool tend to happen. Instead of feeling the sharp pain of isolation and shame, we begin to feel compassion for others, for their unique struggles and hidden pain. And in extending love and kindness to them, our hearts feel a little lighter, too.
What Do I Need Right Now?
What Does Self-Compassion Look Like?
Alright, so you're willing to try it? Sa-weet! The three ingredients above (mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity) are hugely helpful in developing a self-compassion practice. Beyond that, there seems to be some flexibility, as you learn to speak your own unique self-compassion language. However, there are a few more 'expert tips' that might be helpful.
Number 1? Have a conversation with your body– in its language. Not just with words or thoughts, but with touch, tone of voice, and warmth of intention. Begin to get curious about how to relate to your physiological systems when practicing self-compassion. Put another way, "it’s not a mental practice," says Germer, "it’s an embodied practice".
Both Germer and Neff strongly emphasize the importance of friendliness and touch in relating to and activating your body's care system– the complex interworking of your nervous system, brain, and sensory processing. In short, Neff explains, "we are mammals". From the time we are a newborn, we have a physiological need for human connection and kindness. It takes around 25 years for our prefrontal cortex to fully mature. This means that connection to our caregivers is biologically encoded as a need for about just as long, leading humans to have very evolved care systems. This is in large part why kindness, emphasizes Neff, lowers cortisol and activates physiological system designed to make us feel safe.
But what if, for one reason or another, we did not receive a surplus of kindness and human connection growing up? This is where the practice of self-compassion can help us to heal some of these wounds for ourselves.
Have you ever, in a moment of pain, placed a hand on your heart and felt something happen internally? Or perhaps a hand on your belly or solar plexus has brought a sense of calm or groundedness in moments of stress? This is you learning to speak the language of your body– and of course our bodies have a language of their own. Long before we learned to talk or 'think rationally', we were experts at forming connections and evaluating threat. We did this through touch & tone of voice, sensing of genuine warmth and connection that triggered a cascade of neurochemicals (oxytocin, etc) that allowed our body to feel safe, secure, and cared for– or not.
This is the same process that we can work with when practicing caring touch, kindness of tone, and warmth of intention with ourselves. As Germer says, incorporating these techniques into self-compassion allows us to drop out of our mind and story and into our body, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (repair) and reducing cortisol levels (stress).
So when that inner critic is busy telling you “I’m not good enough," Germer suggests that we tune into the pain of that, bringing a hand to our heart or belly, and offering kindness to the places inside us that hurt. Perhaps we say to ourselves what we would say to a friend, but we do it sincerely and with a soothing tone of voice.
"Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?"
There is still SO much more to discuss about self-compassion, but if this blog has sparked your interest, we highly encourage you to check out some of the resources from Neff, Germer, and others below!
As you begin to practice, try to bring a little self-compassion to the process of developing your self-compassion practice– and curiosity! The next time you find yourself caught in a moment of suffering, try pausing (maybe bringing a hand to your heart) and saying (kindly) to yourself, "Oh. This is a moment of suffering," and then see what happens. If nothing arises in response, maybe try asking, "What do I need?"
When you ask this questions—in a way that authentically speaks to you—you may be surprised to find how much healing you can access within your own body.
Thanks for reading, y'all! Next, we'll be talking about the 6 Myths of Self-Compassion, including that being self-compassionate will make you lazy or selfish, or that self-compassion is the same as self-esteem (spoiler alert: it's not). We've also got some great videos/TED Talks lined up for you with some pretty dope humans talking about their own journeys with self-compassion. Oh, and then we'd like to talk about the connection between shame and self-compassion. So much to learn, together!
Great Resources to Learn More
1. Well, first of all, anything Dr. Kristen Neff! She's the author of the book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, and in June 2021 she will be releasing her new book Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power and Thrive. She also hosts a TED Talk on Self-Compassion with over 1.8 million views, and a website with a ton of FREE, guided self-compassion exercises and links to the original scientific research. Want to learn about self-compassion and trauma? Or self-compassion, body image and eating behavior? Or self-compassion, caregiving, and burnout? It's all there!
2. The work of Harvard's Dr. Chris Germer was also very helpful when writing this blog. We recommend checking out his website site www.chrisgermer.com. He and Dr. Neff co-founded The Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. Dr. Germer also recently gave an interview with Dan Harris on his 10% Happier Podcast, as did Kristin Neff, and you can find those episodes here and here, along with an incredible episode on How to Actually Do Self-Love with Queer Eye's Karamo.
3. Serena Chen, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an excellent article for the HBR called Give Yourself a Break: The Power of Self-Compassion with great insight into self-compassion in a business/work environment and leadership.
4. For teens, check out Making Friends with Yourself: Mindful Self-Compassion for Teens.