If you struggle with anxiety, you probably have a mean streak. That is, you’re probably very mean to yourself. You probably have no problem being harsh and overly critical of your thoughts and behaviors — particularly when you’re having a tough time with anxiety.
You might blame yourself and see yourself as less-than because anxiety follows you everywhere, from home to work to the grocery store.
You also might think in shoulds: I should have more control over my anxiety. I should be a better public speaker by now. I should never be scared of something so silly. I should be ashamed. I should be different.
And you might think that being harsh toward yourself will curb your anxiety and whip you into calmer and cooler shape. Or maybe you think that being self-critical is simply being realistic. That you’re realistically evaluating your shortcomings or weaknesses. Or maybe being self-critical has simply become your default, your automatic response to anxiety (or anything else in your life).
But guess what? This kind of thinking often backfires and actually can boost your anxiety.
At least according to Dennis D. Tirch, Ph.D, psychologist and author of The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to Calm Worry, Panic and Fear.
You can’t insult your way to less anxiety (or any positive change). And you know what? You deserve better. Millions of people struggle with anxiety — and there’s no shame in that.
Self-Criticism vs. Compassionate Self-Correction
In his book, Tirch distinguishes between self-criticism and compassionate self-correction. He says that “Compassionate self-correction is grounded in the desire to alleviate suffering and to help us realize our hearts’ deepest desire to be able to behave as we’d wish to.”
He explains that it’s not about denying mistakes or weaknesses. Instead it’s about radically accepting yourself: “accepting your fallibility, your frailty and your suffering, all of which are essential aspects of your common humanity.”
Tirch cites Paul Gilbert’s analogy involving two teachers with different styles: the critical teacher and the encouraging, supportive teacher. The critical teacher focuses on their students’ faults and scolds or teases them. As a result, the students become afraid and resentful, while the teacher becomes angry and anxious. The encouraging and supportive teacher, however, focuses on their student’s strengths, has clear expectations and gives constructive feedback.
Connecting to Your Compassionate Self
Tirch features several valuable activities to help readers tap into their compassionate self. One activity involves using two chairs to mimic your anxious mind and your compassionate mind. It helps you learn how to purposely activate your compassionate mind – and, over time, being empathetic will become automatic.
Take two chairs, and have them face each other. First, sit in one chair and imagine looking at yourself in the other chair. Connect to your self-anxious thoughts, and say them out loud. Talk about your worries, your criticisms, your shame.
Then, when you’re ready, sit in the other chair, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Visualize your compassionate self, and let yourself smile. Connect to your forgiving, kind and warm thoughts. You can also place your hand over your heart and think of being compassionate.
Next, open your eyes and acknowledge that you’re with your anxious self. You might say that you understand your feelings, and acknowledge the difficulty of anxiety; and that it’s OK to feel this way. Then close your eyes, again, and after a natural exhale, let go of the exercise, and give yourself credit for practicing this activity.
In the second exercise Tirch suggests readers compose a compassionate letter to themselves. Before beginning, take a few deep breaths. Then focus on your thoughts. “What conflicts, problems or self-criticisms come to mind? What’s your mind beginning to tell you? What emotions arise within you?”
Then take a few more deep breaths, and focus on being compassionate, nonjudgmental and accepting of yourself. Recognize that your feelings are valid and your struggles are a normal part of life. Find a time to read your letter – and feel free to revise it any time.
Bringing Compassion to the What-Ifs
In the same chapter, Tirch also talks about how readers can bring more compassion to worrisome thoughts (i.e., the usual litany of “what ifs”). It’s these what-ifs that, over time, our brains begin to interpret as cold, hard facts. Then our bodies act in kind, producing anxiety-riddled sensations.
As Tirch writes, “Of course, the anxious mind is very good at generating anxiety-provoking predictions of possible threats. All too often, our emotional brains then respond to these imaginary threats as if they were real, so our physical sensations, feelings, and behavior come to be dominated by our worries.”
He suggests readers explore their thoughts by asking questions such as: “What’s going through my mind when I’m anxious?” “How does my anxious self see the world, and what does it think about the current situation?” “What is my anxious self/mind telling me right now?” Write down your thoughts, and think about how your compassionate mind would respond to them. Think about how you’d talk to a friend who was in a similar situation.
Being kind to ourselves can be hard – really hard for some of us – especially if the critical thoughts are deeply ingrained. But with practice you can learn to be self-compassionate.
And remember that there’s nothing self-indulgent about being kind to yourself. (This is a common misconception.) Tirch cites research that’s actually found the opposite: People who are self-compassionate tend to be less self-indulgent.
As he writes, “To operate from the compassionate mind is to have a deep appreciation of the suffering of both others and ourselves.”
Learn more about Dennis Tirch and his work at his website.