HOW TO GO FROM SELF-CRITICISM TO SELF-COMPASSION

As perfectionists, we’re hard on ourselves, and this often takes the form of self-criticism. In this post, we’ll examine how self-criticism is a barrier to accepting and caring for ourselves. I’m going to provide you with four strategies to help you move away from self-criticism to self-compassion: talking to yourself with compassion, cognitive reframing, practicing self-forgiveness, and focusing on your strengths. They all work synergistically, and you’ll find they overlap nicely. But before we get to the strategies, let’s first examine why we’re so prone to self-criticism and how self-compassion can benefit us.

Self-Compassion Leads to Self-Acceptance

Self-compassion might sound strange, selfish, or soft, but it’s a fairly simple concept that means you give yourself the same understanding and kindness that you might give a friend during a time of need. It includes talking to yourself kindly, forgiving yourself, taking care of your body, giving yourself comfort (like making time to savor a calming cup of tea at the end of a stressful day), and loving touch (such as giving yourself a hug or massage).

Kristin Neff, PhD, author of the book Self-Compassion, identifies three parts of self-compassion: (1) self-kindness rather than judgment or criticism in the face of struggle; (2) recognition of our common humanity, meaning that we feel connected to, not isolated from, others in our shared struggles; and (3) mindfulness, so that we are aware of our feelings, but not minimizing or exaggerating our pain (2011, 41). Using these three components, we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness and reap the rewards of self-compassion.

In this post, we’ll practice ways of being kinder and gentler with ourselves using exercises inspired by Neff’s work. We’ll recognize that everyone has difficulties in life. My struggles might be different than yours, but you can be sure that no one has a problem-free life! And every one of us deserves compassion when we’re going through a hard time, whether you forgot to pick up your son from swim practice or backed into another car in the parking lot. Understanding that our problems and flaws make us similar to others, not different from or less than they are, allows us to give ourselves the same kindness that we’d give a friend during a difficult time.

In order to give ourselves compassion, we need to first acknowledge that we’re having a hard time. Noticing our own struggles can be surprisingly difficult. It requires us to mindfully pay attention to our thoughts and feelings and the physical sensations in our bodies. This could be thinking, I’m having a rough day, or I’m overwhelmed by everything I have to do, or noticing that you’re irritable and physically exhausted. Only when we notice and accept our struggles can we respond with kindness and understanding. As perfectionists, we’re particularly apt to deny our own shortcomings, struggles, and pain, because we view them as proof of our inadequacies. This is why it’s especially important for us to work on transforming our self-criticism into self-compassion.

Perfectionists Never Feel Good Enough

We all talk to ourselves continuously. Most of this self-talk isn’t even in our consciousness. We get so accustomed to our steady stream of thoughts that we don’t pay attention to most of them. However, our unconscious thoughts are important, because they reflect what we believe about ourselves and influence our feelings and actions. Most perfectionists hold a core belief that we’re not good enough, hence the need to constantly do more and be more. We create unrealistic expectations for ourselves, expectations that we’ll be perfect; and when we inevitably fail to meet them, it serves as evidence that we’re not as good as everyone else. Perfectionists meet this sense of failure with harsh self-criticism, which further reinforces our feelings of ineptitude.

Many of us find it easier to offer a kind gesture, encouraging word, or forgiveness to others than we do to ourselves. Sometimes we’re truly quite awful to ourselves—saying and doing things to ourselves that we would never say or do to a friend. We subject ourselves to an unforgiving inner critic, unhealthy relationships, toxic substances, and self-punishment because we’re convinced that we’re different and inferior. We see ourselves as failures, idiots, careless, and lazy. We’re quick to notice our faults and discount our positive qualities. And we criticize ourselves, because we think we deserve it. And because of our impossibly high standards, we see our faults as catastrophic. Hence, we worry that giving ourselves grace will lead to more failures and insecurities. We let our imperfections keep us disconnected rather than seeing the shared humanness in our imperfections.

Laurie is an example of a perfectionist who’s very hard on herself. You’ll notice that some of her negative self-talk is spoken out loud, and some are silent thoughts.

Laurie was plucking stray hairs from her chin one morning when her young daughter asked what she was doing. “I’m trying to make myself look presentable,” she replied in a flustered tone. She examined herself in the mirror and said, “See all these wrinkles and these ugly black hairs on my chin? I’m old. No one wants to look at an old woman.” Running late, as usual, she started yelling at her daughters to find their coats and backpacks and get in the car. “We’re going to be late again!” she hollered. Minutes later, as she drove to work, she was berating herself: I can’t believe I lost my temper again. I said I was going to stop yelling. Why can’t I ever plan ahead and get organized the night before? What’s wrong with me?

Can you relate to Laurie? Laurie is not only self-critical, but she sees her flaws as proof that she is different and “not enough.” She imagines that other people have fewer wrinkles and chin hairs and are more organized and patient than she is. Laurie has homed in on her perceived shortcomings and wants to be more organized and patient, but she ends up criticizing herself, partly out of habit and also because she believes it will lead to changes in her behavior. However, self-criticism is unlikely to be an effective change strategy for Laurie or for you.

What do you say to yourself when you make a mistake, procrastinate, don’t achieve your goals, lose your temper, don’t live up to expectations, or feel not good enough, or when things don’t go according to plan? Do you tend to be accepting and kind or harsh and judgmental?

If you’re like most perfectionists, you tend to be self-critical. You may not be aware of the extent of your self-criticism, because you’ve grown accustomed to it and see it as normal. Or you may notice it but think it’s deserved or even necessary. As we continue on, we’ll work on both becoming more aware of our self-criticism and understanding that it’s not warranted or helpful.

Isn’t Self-Criticism Motivating?

Most perfectionists mistakenly believe that self-criticism will motivate them to excel or change and that meeting an error with compassion will only lead to poorer performance and more mistakes. If you made a mistake on your last sales report, you might say something critical to yourself: I’m such an idiot. This is the worst report I’ve ever written. This type of self-criticism might temporarily motivate you out of fear and shame, but at the same time, you’re undermining your self-esteem and potentially increasing feelings of depression, anxiety, and shame. Ultimately, self-criticism makes us feel worse about ourselves, and it’s hard to do better when we’re yelling and calling ourselves derogatory names. Instead, imagine how it would feel if you responded to your mistake with compassion: I feel embarrassed and frustrated about making this mistake, because I’m trying so hard to do well and impress my boss. I know I can do better next time. Maybe I need to get more sleep or finish my reports first thing in the morning when I’m fresh.

As you can see from this example, self-compassion isn’t self-indulgent. It’s not giving ourselves a free pass when we screw up. We don’t have to choose between accountability or compassion. Selfcompassion allows us to give ourselves both the accountability and the understanding that we need to accept and improve ourselves, as well as the space in which to do so.

Self-compassionate people tend to be more motivated, because they are interested in learning from their mistakes. They can move on more quickly after a setback and set new goals instead of getting stuck in disappointment and self-reproach.

Over the years, has criticizing yourself made you feel better or worse about yourself?

How do you think acknowledging your struggles and responding to them with kindness could be motivating?

Support and encouragement help us to succeed. Some of that support may come from family, friends, or colleagues, but we can also provide ourselves with emotional support by replacing selfcritical thoughts with kinder and more realistic self-talk. Self-compassion is a more effective and positive motivator than self-criticism. So, now that we’ve identified some of the benefits of selfcompassion, we’ll work on practicing it.

Talk to Yourself with Compassion

Talking to yourself kindly is an important form of self-compassion and a natural antidote to selfcriticism. The following exercise will help you identify self-critical thoughts, recognize that you aren’t alone in your failures and imperfections, and offer yourself compassion. Use the space below to give it a try, and then continue to practice using compassionate self-talk at least once a day. The more you practice, the more natural it will feel.

Identify a situation in which you were self-critical.

Sample response: I was late picking up my daughter from preschool. She was the last child there, and her teacher looked annoyed with me. I told myself, “I’m the worst mom. Why can’t you get anything right?”

What is the pain you’re experiencing?

Sample response: I felt like a failure as a mom. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I was sad about upsetting my daughter and making the teacher stay late.

Are you the only human who has ever made this type of mistake? How do you know?

Sample response: No, my husband has been late before. And I’ve heard Sara say that it’s really hard for her to pick up Jack by six.

Now that you’re aware of your pain and see that you aren’t the only one who has done these things (hurt someone, failed, made a mistake, and so on), what would you say to someone else who is experiencing this pain?

Sample response: You’re not a bad mom just because you were late. You take really good care of your daughter and work hard all day to provide for her. I know you’re doing the best you can.

Now try giving yourself the same compassionate response that you’d give a friend.

Sample response: Sharon, you’re not a bad mom just because you were late. You take really good care of your daughter and work hard all day to provide for her. You’re doing the best you can.

How does it feel to give yourself compassion in a difficult time?

Cognitive Reframing

We’re going to use cognitive reframing to change exaggerated or inaccurate negative thoughts (cognitive distortions) about ourselves. Selfcriticism becomes an automatic response for most of us. In fact, a lot of our thoughts aren’t in our conscious awareness. They’re like elevator music humming in the background, setting the tone, without us even realizing it. In this case, the tone is critical, negative, and pessimistic. We want to replace this with more balanced and realistic thoughts. So, to begin to change this, we want to become more aware of our self-critical thoughts.

Noticing Self-Criticism

The first step in changing negative thoughts—what’s often called “negative self-talk”—is to get really clear about the negative things we’re saying to ourselves.

Over the next several days or weeks, record the negative thoughts you have about yourself. But you may find it more convenient to do it on a notepad you carry with you, on a journaling app, or as a written or voice memo on your phone. You may be surprised at how often you’re being self-critical.

Be on the lookout for the words always, never, and should. They’re often signs that criticism is at work. You may also find it helpful to refer to the list of cognitive distortions at the end of the book (appendix A).

self-criticism to self-compassion

Challenging Self-Criticism

We start the process of changing our negative thoughts by looking for evidence to either support or refute our negative beliefs about ourselves.

It’s important to go through the step of challenging your negative self-talk before replacing it with something more positive, because it feels phony to simply say positive things to ourselves if we don’t believe them.

Completing this chart will help you practice identifying, challenging, and changing your negative self-talk.

self compassion

Changing our self-talk is an important part of moving from self-criticism to self-compassion. However, sometimes our self-criticism is deeply lodged as a result of something we feel very badly about. Self-forgiveness is an approach that can be helpful in addition to cognitive reframing.

Practice Self-Forgiveness

Because we demand a lot of ourselves and are constantly disappointed in our imperfect performance and behavior, we tend to hold on to our mistakes and continue to castigate ourselves for things that we did wrong. You might be continuing to punish yourself for yelling at your children, like Laurie did, or for causing a car accident. Mistakes become a heavy load to bear for perfectionists, because we severely (and sometimes inappropriately) blame ourselves, and our list of wrongs and mistakes only grows unless we take steps to accept our mistakes and imperfections and forgive ourselves.

Forgiveness is a way of giving ourselves compassion and accepting our mistakes; it normalizes them. Forgiveness recognizes our shared humanity—we all make mistakes and have regrets, and no one deserves to be perpetually criticized for them.

However, our perfectionism, a reflection of our feelings of inadequacy, makes it hard for us to forgive ourselves, and self-criticism is a barrier to self-forgiveness. But beating ourselves up for our imperfections and mistakes does not ultimately serve us well—or those that we may have hurt. The best way to make things right and feel at peace is to acknowledge and take responsibility for our mistakes, apologize or repair any damage caused, and commit ourselves to learning from them. It’s much harder to do these things when we’re bogged down with self-loathing or depression than when we’re practicing self-compassion.

Forgiving ourselves doesn’t mean we disregard our mistakes or excuse our poor choices. On the contrary, forgiveness requires that we take responsibility for our actions and believe that compassion will allow us to move forward toward better choices.

Self-forgiveness is more of a process than an event. It’s something that you will practice over and over again in order to gradually release your self-criticism and the belief that you deserve to be punished for your imperfections. Self-forgiveness happens when—bit by bit—we believe that we truly did the best we could and understand why we made the choices that we did. Hindsight really is twenty-twenty, which is why it’s completely unfair to judge our past selves with the knowledge and skills we have now. Remember: “When we know better, we do better.”

If you’re highly self-critical and holding on to past mistakes, you can work toward self-forgiveness with the following exercises: re-do a regret, forgiveness affirmation, and take positive action. Each one can be a part of the process of self-forgiveness.

Re-Do a Regret

We can’t, of course, travel back in time and do things differently. But it can still help to think about what we would have done differently and give ourselves compassion; this helps us learn from our mistakes and keep things in perspective.

Think of a situation that you’re struggling to forgive yourself for, something you’re feeling shame, regret, hurt, or anger about. Describe what happened.

What can you say to your past self to offer understanding and compassion during that situation or experience?

If you could do it over, what would you do differently?

See if you can implement what you just described the next time you’re in a similar situation.

Forgiveness Affirmation

An affirmation can create a positive mindset and energy that can help you start to think about yourself differently and then, ultimately, treat yourself differently. For example, Laurie used a forgiveness affirmation to stop beating herself up about losing her temper with her daughters during times of stress and to remain focused on her goal of being less reactive and self-critical.

Laurie’s forgiveness affirmation:

I forgive myself for yelling at the girls. I release myself from feeling guilty and like a terrible mother and person. I accept that I’m human and I make mistakes. Now, I would do things differently, but I did the best I could at the time, and I forgive myself for my mistakes.

You can use this formula for your self-forgiveness affirmation or you can modify it as needed.

I forgive myself for                    . I release myself from
                                . I accept that I’m
human and I make mistakes. Now, I would do things differently, but I did the best I
could at the time, and I forgive myself for my mistakes.

Or write your own personal forgiveness affirmation.

Try repeating your affirmation every morning and every evening. See how it feels. You can change the affirmation to language that speaks to your specific pain and regret. Make it meaningful to you.

Take Positive Action

It’s important that we acknowledge our mistakes—not so we can punish ourselves for them, but so we can learn from them and accept our imperfections. Sometimes our mistakes also negatively impact others, and this can be an especially painful reminder of our imperfections. However, getting stuck in rumination and regret doesn’t help anyone. We can try to make the best of a mistake by learning from it, giving an apology or making amends to those who were hurt, or by doing something good in the world.

Often, part of releasing ourselves from regret is giving an apology and making amends. A quality apology has three parts: (1) taking responsibility for our actions and the impact, (2) showing regret, and (3) offering to fix things. Here’s an example: “Isaiah, I’m sorry I took credit for your idea during the customer meeting. That was wrong. I see now that it made you look unprepared and incompetent in front of our customer. I’d like to talk to our supervisor and the customer to take responsibility for my wrongdoing and give you full credit for the idea.”

Think of a situation in which you did something you wish you could apologize for. Practice writing an apology that takes responsibility, shows regret, and offers a repair.

Sometimes the person you need to apologize to is you. If you’ve been degrading yourself, cursing at yourself, and holding yourself hostage emotionally, it can be a powerful exercise to forgive yourself for being mean and unnecessarily harsh with yourself. You would expect an apology if someone else treated you this way, so why not give yourself an apology? Jacie’s story is an example of self-forgiveness.

Jacie’s Story

Years after her mother died, Jacie continued to beat herself up for not getting to her mother’s bedside in time to say goodbye. Her siblings had all been there to comfort their mother and hold her hand as she died. Jacie felt like an awful daughter. Jacie’s apology to herself went like this: “I’m sorry that I’ve guilted you and said you were a bad daughter. I’m sorry that I’ve let you focus on this regret and let it color your memories of Mom and our relationship. That wasn’t fair. I want to be kind to you going forward and offer you understanding and compassion when you’re suffering.”

Try writing an apology to yourself for being self-critical and harsh.

Sometimes an apology isn’t possible and we can’t make amends to the injured party. This doesn’t mean we are doomed to a lifetime of regret and self-criticism. We can still lessen the negative impact by taking positive action in the world. In Jacie’s case, she did apologize to herself, but she still felt unsettled. She finally started to feel better when she began a practice of sending sympathy cards with a heartfelt message to parishioners in her church when a loved one died. This was a small but meaningful way that Jacie could help others.

Doing something positive in the world doesn’t need to be time-consuming or costly. You can simply do something small, like bringing in your elderly neighbor’s trash cans, as a way to counter your negative and self-critical perfectionist beliefs, make amends, and focus on how you can make the world a better place.

What are some simple ways that you can take positive action in the world?

Focus on Your Strengths

You’re probably hyperaware of your faults and shortcomings but unaware of or quick to dismiss your strengths and positive personality traits. Perfectionism gives us an inaccurate perception of ourselves. We become internally focused on our imperfections and failures, which we try to keep hidden from everyone else. This creates an inaccurate self-assessment, which contributes to our tendency to self-criticize.

Identifying Your Strengths

We all have strengths and weaknesses, but as perfectionists, we tend to magnify our weaknesses and ignore our strengths. It’s not realistic to expect ourselves to know everything, excel at everything, and win every competition. And it’s not fair to discount our strengths and positive attributes. We’ve talked about ways to begin to accept our weaknesses and mistakes, but we also need to rebalance our thinking by recognizing our strengths.

As you work on identifying your strengths, remember that strengths are not the same as achievements. Achievements have their place, but they are only part of who you are. We want to tap into the inner character strengths, personality traits, and positive attributes that make you special.

You can use this list of strengths to help you get started.

• creative • determined • patient • confident • kind • energetic • focused • gracious • humorous • spiritual • a team player • independent • playful
• hardworking • attentive to detail • honest • open-minded • able to keep things in perspective • organized • practical • disciplined • brave • loyal • generous • responsible • thoughtful
• adaptable • consistent • spontaneous • positive • authentic • a lifelong learner • hopeful • appreciative of the small things • curious • self-aware • empathetic • prudent

What strengths do you see in yourself? (List at least five.)

If you have trouble with this exercise, try asking yourself these questions.

What strengths have contributed to your successes?

What activities or roles do you enjoy?

Which of your personality traits bring you joy?

Which of your personality traits reflect your values?

You can also ask two or three close friends, family members, or colleagues about your strengths. Sometimes others see things that we don’t recognize in ourselves.

What strengths do your friends and family see in you? In what ways do they value you for what you do—and who you are?

Give and Accept Compliments

Giving ourselves compliments and accepting them from others is another way we can act in a loving way toward ourselves. Many people tend to disregard compliments. We shrug them off, not wanting people to think we’re narcissistic or conceited. However, most compliments are given freely with an open heart. They are intended to focus on the positive and to brighten your day. Graciously accepting a compliment brings joy to both the giver and the receiver.

Write down some compliments that you’ve received in the past few weeks. If none come to mind, be on the lookout for them for the next few days, and write them down when you receive them.

How do you typically respond to compliments?

When you receive a compliment, remind yourself that someone else has recognized something positive about you and wanted to let you know. Let it soak in. If you don’t entirely believe what the other person’s telling you, perhaps mull it over and look for some truth in it. And even if you don’t completely agree with the compliment, try receiving it as a loving gesture—an expression of his or her care for you. You might respond by saying, “thank you,” “thanks for noticing,” “I appreciate your kindness,” or “yes, I’m really happy about that, too.”

What response or responses to compliments feel right to you?

Now we’re going to practice giving ourselves compliments. As perfectionists, we already tend to base our value on our achievements, so for this exercise, try to focus on your strengths, things that matter to you (not things that you did to please others), and challenges you’ve overcome, as well as the self-improvement, effort, or progress you’ve made. This is another place to watch that you don’t get caught up in all-or-nothing thinking. It’s totally valid to give yourself a virtual gold star for prepping your lunches for the week on Sunday night, even if you didn’t manage to do it last week. These compliments are about what’s happening right now.

Try to record at least one positive thing about yourself per day and then write it as a compliment. To reinforce your strengths and efforts, it’s great to come back to this list and reread it, say the compliments out loud, or write them on sticky notes that you stick on your mirror or computer for extra reinforcement.

Self-Criticism

After you’ve spent some time practicing self-compassion and giving yourself compliments, be sure to look for opportunities to compliment yourself for using compassionate self-talk and forgiveness instead of self-criticism.

Summary

We can change self-critical patterns by incorporating compassionate self-talk, cognitive reframing, forgiveness, and focusing on strengths in our daily routines. These strategies will help you to notice when you’re struggling and give you the love and understanding that you need and deserve.

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