For many of us, when we make a mistake, self-criticism is often our default response. The voice in our heads that tells us that we are ‘useless’ or ‘worthless’ or that we are ‘never going to amount to anything unless we pull our socks up’. Surely, having such a coach on the side-lines, spurring us on, will make us perform better in the future? Many of us believe that self-criticism demonstrates our commitment to the highest possible standards.
If you had asked me 10 years ago how best to motivate myself, I suspect that ‘self-criticism’ would have featured fairly high up the list. If someone had suggested I take a kinder approach to my setbacks or failures I probably would have laughed. Surely the only way to achieve the high standards that I had set for myself was to hold myself accountable by criticising my short-comings? That would ensure I didn’t fall short again. It is certainly true that we don’t like the feeling of being criticised. Criticism is painful. It feels bad, regardless of who is dishing it out. Yet, it would be a mistake to believe that self-criticism motivates us to keep moving forward.
When we criticise ourselves, the emotional pain we experience lights up the same pain centres of the brain as physical pain, namely the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. As a result of this overlap in neural circuitry, when our inner critic runs rampant inside our head, it can feel as if someone has quite literally punched us in the gut. Only, rather than a critical stranger, we are the ones inflicting the pain. In an effort to protect ourselves, we trigger fight or flight – the very same mechanism that we call upon to help us defend ourselves from a predator. Only, in the case of self-criticism, we are both the predator and the prey.
Whereas the threat from an actual predator usually dissipates within minutes or hours, our self-criticism can last for days, months or an entire lifetime, slowly eroding our self-worth, self-confidence and our sense of safety. Yet, if we cannot find sanctuary in our own mind, where will we ever find refuge from the critical world we find ourselves in? As a result (and contrary to popular belief), self-criticism has been shown to have a negative effect on our long-term motivation. Our inner critic effectively undermines our self-esteem and, with it, our motivation to persevere.
A different approach to failure
Research into self-compassion shows that those who are able to cultivate greater compassion towards themselves, counterintuitively end up holding themselves to a higher standard and perform better than those who criticise themselves. A self-compassionate response has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, stress, perfectionism, shame and pain. It has also been shown to increase life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, body appreciation and immune function.
Part of the reason is due to the fact that self-compassion doesn’t induce our fight or flight response – so there is no longer the fear of beating ourselves up if things go wrong. Instead, we tap into our parasympathetic nervous system, meditated by our mammalian caregiving system (also known as our tend and befriend response). It works by triggering the release of hormones such as oxytocin, which help to promote feelings of warmth towards ourselves and relieve any stress we may be experiencing. We become our greatest ally.
Cultivating greater self-compassion
When it comes to cultivating greater self-compassion towards our self, there is no silver bullet. It begins with mindful self-awareness of those moments when we are experiencing pain or suffering and learning to catch ourselves from mindlessly chastising ourselves. The second step is to be kind. A simple exercise that you can do to cultivate greater kindness towards yourself, which is an exercise from the Mindful Self-Compassion programme developed by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, is set out below.
1. Think of a behaviour that you are keen to change and that is currently causing you problems. What happens when you display that behaviour? Do you get defensive? Do you close down?
2. What does the voice of your inner critic tell you? What words does it use? What tone does it use? How does it express itself?
3. Now get in touch with the part of you that feels criticised. What impact do those critical words have on you? How do they make you feel?
4. Finally, can you think of a kinder more compassionate way of acknowledging your pain in that moment? Imagine it was a close friend who had been berating themselves for a similar transgression, what would you say to them to help comfort them in that moment? Can you use similar words to comfort yourself?
Lastly, it can be really helpful to harness our common humanity. Reminding ourselves that we are not alone in moments of suffering can be a huge comfort. Humans are imperfect beings and all of us will have experienced setbacks and sorrow in our lifetimes. Reminding ourselves of this fact can help soothe the pain we may be experiencing in that moment. The more often we practise self-compassion the quieter our inner critic’s voice will become.