Many of us are all too used to bashing ourselves. And it’s not surprising. In our society, we’re taught that being hard on ourselves and ashamed of everything from our actions to our looks gets results.
Self-criticism is the preferred path to success. We rarely think about showing ourselves kindness. Or even if we do, we worry that doing so is selfish, complacent or arrogant.
But research has found that self-criticism only sabotages us and produces a variety of negative consequences. For instance, according to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor in human development at the University of Texas at Austin, studies have shown that self-criticism can lead to lowered self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
Neff is the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. Self-compassion is what you’d show a loved one struggling with a similar situation.
Self-compassion has been linked to greater well-being, including diminished anxiety and depression, better emotional coping skills and compassion for others.
Specifically, according to Neff, self-compassion consists of three components:
- Self-kindness: Being kind, gentle and understanding with yourself when you’re suffering.
- Common humanity: Realizing that you’re not alone in your struggles. When we’re struggling, we tend to feel especially isolated. We think we’re the only ones to experience loss, make mistakes, feel rejected or fail. But it’s these very struggles that are part of our shared experience as humans.
- Mindfulness: Observing life as it is, without being judgemental or suppressing your thoughts and feelings.
Myths about Self-Compassion
Because beating ourselves up is so entrenched in our society, you still might be suspicious of self-compassion. Below, Neff dispels common myths that may stand in the way of people being kinder to themselves.
Myth: Self-compassion is self-pitying or egocentric.
Fact: Self-pity is being immersed in your own problems and forgetting that others struggle, too, Neff said. However, being self-compassionate is seeing things exactly as they are — no more and no less, she said. It means acknowledging that you’re suffering, while acknowledging that others have similar problems or are suffering even more. It’s putting your problems into perspective.
Myth: Self-compassion is self-indulgent.
Fact: Being self-compassionate doesn’t mean solely seeking pleasure, Neff said. It’s not shirking responsibilities or being slothful. Rather, self-compassion focuses on alleviating suffering. From this perspective, you consider whether something will hurt you in the long run, she said.
Myth: Self-criticism is an effective motivator.
Fact: There’s actually nothing motivating about criticizing yourself, Neff said, because it makes you fear failure and lose faith in yourself. Even if you do achieve great things, you’re often miserable, anyway.
It’s interesting that in other areas of our lives we understand that being harsh doesn’t work. Take the example of parenting. Decades ago, we thought that harsh punishment and criticism were effective in keeping kids in line and helping them do well, Neff said.
However, today, we know that being a supportive and encouraging parent is more beneficial. (When you’re told you’re a failure, the last thing you think you’re capable of is succeeding, or even trying.)
Self-compassion acts like a nurturing parent, she said. So even when you don’t do well, you’re still supportive and accepting of yourself. Like a kind parent, your support and love are unconditional, and you realize that it’s perfectly OK to be imperfect.
This doesn’t mean being complacent. Self-criticism tears us down; it presumes that “I am bad.” Self-compassion, however, focuses on changing the behavior that’s making you unhealthy or unhappy, Neff said.
Strategies for Self-Compassion
Being self-compassionate might seem unnatural at first. These strategies can help. This may be harder for some individuals, Neff said, particularly if you’ve experienced trauma, so it’s important to work with a therapist.
1. Consider how you’d treat someone else. The simplest thing you can do, according to Neff, is to imagine what you’d do if someone you cared about came to you after failing or getting rejected. What would you say to that person? How would you treat them?
2. Watch your language. You may be so used to criticizing yourself that you don’t even realize that you’re doing it. So it helps to pay particular attention to the words you use to speak to yourself. If you wouldn’t say the same statements to someone you care about, then you’re being self-critical, Neff said.
3. Comfort yourself with a physical gesture. Kind physical gestures have an immediate effect on our bodies, activating the soothing parasympathetic system, Neff said. Specifically, physical gestures “get you out of your head and drop you into your body,” she said, which is important since “the head loves to run away with storylines.” For instance, she suggested putting your hands over your heart or simply holding your arm. Any gesture will do.
4. Memorize a set of compassionate phrases. Whenever you find yourself saying, “I’m horrible,” it helps to have a few phrases at the ready. Pick statements that really resonate with you. Combining that with a physical gesture — like hands over your heart — is especially powerful, Neff said. She uses the following phrases:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment?
May I give myself the compassion I need?
5. Practice guided meditation. Meditation helps to retrain the brain, Neff said. This way, self-compassionate gestures and self-soothing become more natural. Neff includes several self-compassion meditations on her website.