Give Yourself a Break: How Self-Compassion Sits Alongside Growth
What if you took all of the energy you put into telling yourself, "I should be..." and redirected it into telling yourself "I have permission to..."?
Self-criticism is a funny thing in the way it relates to motivation. Often times, a self-critical mindset *feels* like the most effective way to increase our motivation for change. After all, it provides a clear message about the things we don't want to do anymore, right? But the trick of the inner critic is that it can quickly and sneakily become part of our shame cycle and can actually work *against* our motivation to change. Recently, I was reading through The Report of Stress & Wellbeing in Australia (Australian Psychological Society, 2015) and found myself laughing out loud over the fact that 40% of survey participants reported feeling stressed over trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The critical messages we are being sold regarding health are actually causing us stress. What’s more; a far more alarming finding from the same report conveyed that of the survey participants who reported significant levels of distressing experiences, 61% managed their stress through regular use of alcohol. So, if self-criticism was the most effective method of obtaining and maintaining motivation, why do so many of us feel the complete opposite effects of it?
Typically, our brains are motivated by two things: stress & comfort. Stress motivates us to get away from discomfort or danger. Comfort soothes us back into a regulated state once the danger has subsided. Criticism is stressful. And it will (almost always) drive us back to the habits that give us comfort even if we're trying to change those habits. We know we can’t have the comforting thing, so we want it more. We crave it. We suffer over not being able to have it. So eventually we will reach out for it, because we know exactly how beautifully instant it’s comfort is for us. Then when we find ourselves safely within our comfort zone, our inner critic swoops in to pick out all of the ways we've failed: thus, activating the stress motivation to kick back in. And so...we become stuck in this exhausting cycle. Rather than allowing us to observe what we have learned from the experience; self-criticism berates us for what we have not achieved. Our inner critic fuels shame by telling us that our self-worth is tied only to what we are able to achieve. I'm here to tell you, that is not the case.
This critic is born from & perpetuated by the contexts of our relationships, families, communities, workplaces, media consumption. It is rooted in the oppressive systems of racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexism, fatphobia, purity culture, etc., and tells us that we are not enough. Often the inner critic is not reflective of you--it is reflective of the ways in which the oppressive external world has become internalised. And you wanna know what's even wilder? Quite often, the coping mechanisms we originally used to comfort us against those harsh external critics become the very things we shame ourselves for using later on from the voice of the inner critic. Those coping mechanisms served a very specific purpose at one stage: to protect, regulate and soothe when the outside world caused us incredible amounts of pain. It is okay to not need it anymore, and you are not wrong for once protecting yourself with it.
So how do we challenge the critic? Well, we stand in direct opposition to it by practicing self-compassion. Self-compassion allows us to explore, learn, forgive & grow in a way that is curious and non-judgemental. Through the lens of self-compassion, we are able to shift the shame narrative into one that is based in self-awareness and love. Now, this can be really uncomfortable if we’re not used to receiving this form of unconditional love. Self-compassion has gotten a bit of a bad rep over the years, with many equating it to laziness or a lack of accountability. Others may view it as self-pity, or even self-indulgence. Self-compassion is not a get-out-of-jail free card. Rather, at its very core, self-compassion is an act of self-discipline. And a very efficient one at that, as it often requires less energy than its more oppressive counterpart. (For any workaholic types who may be reading take note: it’s the very definition of working smarter and not harder). Self-compassion provides a framework to override the habitual shame cycle we may have felt stuck in for several years and instead step outside of it to see how it works. Self-compassion is a skill, and new skills take practice. It is in this practice that we can stop overvaluing of achievements in order to begin listening to the messages contained within our emotional needs to cultivate more self-love. Now don’t get it twisted, Self-compassion is not part of the camp of Toxic Positivity and encourages us to allow our emotions to move freely within us, even the more challenging ones, in order to explore and develop a relationship to them instead of ignoring them in lieu of “good vibes only”.
As I mentioned before, self-compassion can be really hard if you’re not used to feeling this kind of unconditional support. Now, we don’t have to dive straight into changing our deeply ingrained systems of values, beliefs and boundaries (and doing so without building up to it can be downright dangerous). But there are some exercises that we can use to begin to develop a more mindful relationship to our inner critic & slowly encourage more self-compassion. One such exercise is called: Would you speak to a loved one like that?
This reflective technique invites us to curiously & honestly explore the ways that we tend to hold ourselves to much higher expectation than we do those around us. You can use this as a journaling prompt, or simply by reflecting quietly on it. Consider the following:
· Think back to a time when a friend or loved one has been struggling in some way: perhaps through a big life change, a relationship break-up, or health issue. If you can’t recall a direct experience, try to envision someone close to you going through a difficult experience.
· Next, ask yourself how you would respond. What would you say? How would you say it? What questions would you ask? What forms of non-verbal communication would you use to show your loved one you care? Write out what the best version of you would do in this scenario.
· Now think about a time when you have been in a similar situation or envision yourself in a similar situation. Write down what your immediate thoughts and feelings about yourself are in this situation. How do you talk to yourself? What words, language, and tone do you use to describe yourself in this scenario? How do you treat your thoughts, emotions or your body?
· Compare the two ways you react with one another. Do you notice any differences? What are they? What fears are being played out in how you treat yourself versus others? Why do you think this is?
· On a fresh piece of paper write out how you want to be treated. What words, gestures, and behaviours do you need to feel more accepting and supportive of the self when you experience difficulties? Use this to guide the ways you begin speaking to your inner critic.
Using the above reflections, we can begin to challenge our inner critic by engaging it in conversation that allows for forgiveness first and understanding second. This might be done by a giving ourselves a gentle reminder next time the critic tries to take over of “how would I talk to my loved one in this scenario”?
Another technique that builds upon the first is to unpack the “should/should not”: “I should…” is a form of violent communication against ourselves. It gives the inner critic a platform to ignore the gap between our needs and focus only on a potential achievement. Now, sometimes we are not able to acknowledge and honour our immediate needs- like when we have to go to work even though we really want to stay in the warm and cosy bed. Unpacking the should/should not does not invalidate our daily responsibilities; but it can challenge them if say, we find ourselves dreading getting up to go to work every day. It shifts us into a curious mindset to observe not only our behaviours, but the thoughts, emotions and felt sensations around these behaviours without becoming overly attached to any part of the process.
For example, one of the ways “I should/shouldn’t..” comes up into our lives, is when we are in need of rest. Because productivity and achievement are overvalued in our society, rest is often viewed a laziness. When we’re enjoying a quiet morning off work and suddenly think “I should really put the washing on”, it automatically takes us out of our present focus and creates room for the inner critic to diminish how we were serving our need in that moment. One way I’ve interrupted my inner critic in this scenario is to ask myself questions and really listen to the feedback of inner wisdom:
· What is it that I need in this moment? What is it that I want?
· By following the ‘should’, what am I saying no to?
· By refusing the ‘should’, what am I saying yes to?
· Is there room for both here? Is there a conflict?
· What is underneath this conflict?
· How can I give myself permission to meet this need?
By asking these questions to challenge the conditioned critical mindset, we are able to begin creating a dialogue between our critic and our needs that meets ourselves exactly where we are & explores without judgement. It gives us the freedom to choose. By asking these questions, we can begin to work in alignment with our needs rather than striving toward the ways we may perceive ourselves as expected to be. We can create boundaries that allow for these needs to be met. We can forgive ourselves for those times where we may choose something that doesn’t necessarily support our growth, but it does comfort our distress. And becoming conscious of this supports our growth by default.
Each one of us already has this resource within us. It’s the whole reason why we can speak to our loved ones with such kindness and empathy. Self-compassion can be used as one of the most empowering tools for self-awareness and dismantling shame. It gently asks us only to be kind, to be curious, and to be honest. And this practice is one that naturally radiates outward. I have found that the more compassionate I am towards myself-particularly when I have made a mistake, chosen an old coping habit, or felt ashamed-the more compassion and understanding I have felt toward others as well (yes, even you, 45).
I could go on and on about the beauty of self-compassion, and delve into the unequivocally revolutionary ways we can use it within marginalised communities for reclamation of self, but for now I’ll leave things with this: Self-compassion is one of the cornerstones from which we can work to dismantle the weight of shame thrust upon us from the outer world and replace it with our own values. It is hard work and if you’re not used to being supported or having your needs met, such work may feel impossible in the beginning. Give yourself time, cut yourself some slack. You are in the process of dismantling an entire lifetime of systemic criticism. But you are worthy of this process. Right now, exactly as you are. Even if you don’t realise it yet.
(The above exercises are adapted from Dr. Kristin Neff’s The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. I have used this book when developing my own self-compassion practice and refer back to it often. Totally recommend it. Check out more on Dr. Neff's work here: https://self-compassion.org/)