Self-criticism is often an attempt to preempt criticism from others. Self-compassion can help you be more motivated by a desire for growth.
Imagine a toddler who is learning to walk. He falls down, he gets back up. No way is he giving up on learning to walk! He doesn’t yet have an inner critic whispering in his ear: “You’re no good at this walking thing. You should just give up.”
He’ll learn how to walk.
But then he’ll start learning to be self-critical—from his family, school, church, media, and other elements of his environment. It happens to most—if not all—of us. We begin to compare ourselves to other people, desperate to fit in because we are social animals. It’s a practice that goes back to our hunter-gatherer days, when an isolated individual was less likely to survive than someone who was part of a group.
Self-criticism is, in many ways, a consequence of human longing to belong, an attempt to preempt criticism from others. You judge yourself harshly whenever you fail and hope no one noticed your failure. You strive to prove in various ways you deserve belonging because you are afraid of being found unworthy to belong.
Obviously, you can’t go back to being a toddler (who would want to?). But the consequence of our learned self-criticism is you begin to give up on trying new things. You give up at the first sign of failure. Is there a way back to that innocent curiosity and courage you once seemed to have?
Self-compassion can help you be more motivated by the desire for growth instead of by desire to avoid criticism—what psychology professor Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset.”
People with the fixed mindset tend to be concerned with doing things well from the start and avoiding criticism and failure, while people with a growth mindset are more concerned with learning and less discouraged by criticism and failure.
The good news is, even if you tend toward a fixed mindset, this isn’t fixed! You can learn to be more growth-oriented. Self-compassion is kindness based on acceptance of yourself exactly as you are, independent of your achievements or the approval of others. And this self-compassion can help you be gentler with yourself when you fail and give you more courage to try new things because you’re not motivated by fear of criticism.
There are 3 major steps toward becoming less critical and more compassionate toward yourself:
1. Become mindful. For the next week, notice when you’re being self-critical or feeling bad about yourself.
- Write down what your inner critic is saying as accurately as possible: What are the actual words you use to talk to yourself? What are the areas in which you are critical of yourself?
- Describe your inner critic. Does it remind you of someone from your past or present? From where do you think your self-criticism stems? Does your inner critic use comparison to others (and who)?
- Reflect on approval and failure. Is your desire to please others keeping you from doing what you really want? Whose approval are you seeking and why? What do you want to do, but have been afraid of doing because you think you might not be “good” at it? If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do.
2. Change critical self-talk and practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is a practice—meaning there’s no endpoint. There’s never going to be a time when you have it all figured out and can cross it off your list. You will fall down and into old, self-critical habits. But don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up! Each moment is a new opportunity to choose self-compassion. And it is a choice we must make again and again.
- Reframe your self-talk when you catch yourself being critical.
Self-critical: I suck at finishing things.
Reframe: I may not always have been good at finishing things, but I’m getting better at it.
- Reframe your self-talk by looking at the facts. Use 3x5 cards and put the critical statement on one side and the facts on the reverse.
Self-critical: I never finish anything.
Facts: I finished washing the dishes today.
- Note in your journal the changes in your self-talk. This reinforces your self-compassionate thinking.
- Write a compassionate letter to yourself. Begin with: “It’s understandable that you feel/it’s normal for people to feel,” then step back and see what would be helpful for you to focus on. “I want you to know that ... You’ve coped with tough things before … In a couple of days, you might feel better …”
- Make a list of 100 ways you can nurture yourself. Keep the pen moving as you make your list. Don’t think too hard. It’s okay if you repeat yourself. Ask: How can I be kind to myself today? What refuels me? Reread what you write and notice any patterns or activities that keep coming up. Ask yourself if you’re taking the time for these things. If not, how can you incorporate more of what nurtures you into your life?
- Write three to five loving-kindness phrases you can repeat to yourself whenever you need them. Choose ones meaningful to you and express what you most need, what you wish someone would say to you every day: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be at peace.
3. Remember we’re not here to be perfect—we’re here to grow.
Read more on ways to stop beating yourself up.