Self-Compassion | Counseling | Therapy


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Replacing Self-Criticism with Self-Compassion

People often think that self-criticism is the key to self-improvement. Self-criticism pushes us to perform better and raise our standards, right? Actually, self-criticism is more affiliated to self-sabotage than self-improvement. Self-criticism keeps us focused on our weakness rather than our strengths. Hyper-focusing on what we perceive as our flaws can lead to numerous forms of mental anguish, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Hyper self-criticism can lead to poor decision making. Think about it. When was the last time beating yourself up about a mistake you made or something you wish you had done differently helped you change?

The real key to improving productivity and well-being is self-compassion. Self-compassion means treating yourself the way you would treat someone you care about – with kindness and understanding. It is important that we practice awareness of the mistakes we have made, ways we can improve our behaviors, and how we may have negatively impacted the lives of others. But if we want to change something about our lives, self-criticism alone will not lead to long-term effective change. Self-compassion means you are mindful of both your strengths and areas for improvement, negative and positive emotions without excessively attaching yourself to either.

It’s tough to get into the habit of practicing self-compassion when you have years of experience being self-critical. Here are some tips to get you started on your journey towards self-compassion.

1. Notice What You Say To Yourself

In times of failure or challenge, people often say things to themselves in their mind like, “I can’t believe I messed up again!” or “This is proof that I’m not smart or strong or lovable.” We often say things to ourselves, or what therapists call “self-talk,” so often that we do not even notice when we talk to ourselves or what we say. Noticing your self-talk can help you detect self-criticism and replace it with self-compassion. Here’s an example:

Lucy walks into her office and realizes she left her notes for the meeting she has scheduled with her boss for this afternoon at home. She thinks to herself, "Damn it, my boss is going to wonder why she hired someone so dumb." Lucy stops and realizes what she has just said to herself. She takes a deep breath, holds her hand to her heart and thinks, "I made a mistake. I can reschedule the meeting and apologize. My boss hired me because I have a lot of experience and creativity."

Lucy is much more likely to remember to bring her notes with her to work next time if she puts up reminders around her room to pack her notes or scans them so she can print them from her office. But it's hard to make positive, productive changes when you're criticizing yourself too harshly. Harsh self-criticism is often rooted in a punitive relationships from early on in our lives and a derogatory sense of self, not the reality of the situation for which you are criticizing yourself. Problem solving is best suited in an objective state of mind, not in a flood of self-hatred. Notice how her new statement of self-compassion does not excuse her mistake; it shows balanced self-awareness.

2. Develop a Mantra

A mantra is a phrase that you can turn to in challenging situations so you can remain calm and handle the situation mindfully. Sometimes the hardest thing for us to do when we are in the depths of self-criticism is to practice self-compassion. That is why preparing a mantra for yourself to keep folded up in your wallet or memorize is a great idea. The best mantras are the ones you make for yourself, using your vocabulary and way of expressing yourself. If you are having trouble making a mantra for yourself, what is something a person you love has told you that made you feel better during tough times or has inspired you to keep on going when you feel like giving up? Here are examples of self-compassion mantras to inspire you:

- "The degree to which I love myself will determine how much I can give to the world."
- "I have flaws and that's okay."
- “Be my own best friend.”
- “I am worthy of compassion, love, and forgiveness.

So perhaps Lucy feels overwhelmed with self-criticism when she realizes she left her notes for the meeting at home. She thinks to herself that she's dumb and that her boss made a mistake by hiring her and then she thinks to herself, "Oh, the first tip in the article I read last night told me to replace my self-criticism with self-compassion….but no, I can't right now. I feel flooded with shame." Lucy opens up her laptop and sees the desktop wallpaper she made for herself the night before. It says "It's going to be okay, Lucy. You've got so much to offer." This mantra doesn't fill Lucy with self-compassion immediately upon reading it, but she keeps it in mind when she asks her boss if they can reschedule the meeting and little by little, the mantra helps her make it through the day with less self-criticism.

3. Make a Daily List of Positive Qualities You See In Yourself

Have you ever kept a food journal? When you commit to writing down what you eat, you become more mindful of the things you choose to consume. The same thing goes for thoughts! If you commit to making a daily list of positive qualities you see in yourself, you will be more likely to identify them throughout the day. Making a point to practice showing yourself love and giving yourself praise when it's due will help you flex the brain muscle you need to practice self-compassion during tough times.

Back to our friend Lucy. On her way to her favorite taco place during her lunch break, Lucy sees a senior man struggling to get his luggage up steps of a hotel. Her tummy is growling, but she cannot stand to walk by without offering the man assistance. She helps the man up the stairs with his luggage. As she continues her stroll to get a taco, she appreciates how good it felt to be generous and kind. She looks forward to writing it down on her daily list. If she did something nice before the list, she might have continued with her day without giving herself credit for her positive qualities. Here what Lucy’s list looks like at the end of the day:

- I was able to get up, get dressed, and go to work despite how much I wanted to call in sick and binge watch my favorite T.V shows. I’m stronger than I think I am.
- I helped an intern at the office figure out how to use the fax machine and file paperwork. I helped someone who needed guidance.
- I assisted a senior with his luggage during my lunch break. I’m kind and generous.
- I was able to diffuse a conflict between a colleague and a client. I’m good at my job.

Breaking the cycle of self-criticism with self-compassion can be really difficult if you try to do it all by yourself. Therapy that explores experiences that have led to internalizing negative messages about yourself may help in understanding the origins of self-criticism and breaking the cycle. Verbalizing the things that you say to yourself in your mind to a therapist can help you learn the difference between having a balanced point of view with compassion and being self-critical. Schedule an appointment with a therapist at the Center for Growth in Philadelphia online or by calling (215) 922-5688.

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