Do you ever hear a little voice chattering away in your head that fills you with self-doubt? You know the one. Perhaps you've heard it saying: "You're not good enough", "You're so lazy," or even "You're such an idiot." It's that voice of self-criticism that says things, you would never dare say to anyone else but you've gotten so used to it trying to drive you forward or keep you safe that now you're afraid to tell it to knock it off. I call it my mean girl voice, and between you and I she can be vicious.
You see when you were a child, chances are that as you were growing up your parents or a teacher used some harsh words to try and make you change your behavior and do the right thing. Whether it worked or not, these early experiences seem to leave us with deep belief that if we're really hard on ourselves, about what we did or didn't do, about who we are and how we should be, that we'll be able to become the people we're meant to be.
But does it really work?
Researchers suggest probably not. Dr. Kelly McGonigal at Stamford University has found that self-criticism is actually far more destructive than it is helpful. For example, in one set of studies that followed hundreds of people trying to meet a wide range of goals - from losing to weight to pursuing academic goals, improving social relationships or their performance - the researchers found that the more people criticized themselves, the slower their progress over time and the less likely they were to achieve the goal they'd set.
In fact, neuroscientists suggest self-criticism actually shifts the brain into a state of self-inhibition and self-punishment that causes us to disengage from our goals. Leaving us feeling threatened and demoralized, it seems to put the brakes on us taking action, and leaves us stuck in a cycle of rumination, procrastination and self-loathing.
Let me be clear, it's not that that my mean girl voice makes it impossible for me to achieve things. Often I'll push through all her noise just to try and prove she's not right. It's just that her vitriol distracts me, slows me down and wears me out. And I'd love to find a gentler and more effective way to achieve the things that matter to me.
But is there an alternative?
Dr. Kristen Neff at the University of Texas, and her colleagues suggest that tapping into our self-compassion - or as I like to call it my kind girl voice - can help us to break our entrenched patterns of self-criticism, whilst still allowing us to be honest about our fears. Now let me be clear this isn't about giving yourself permission to not show up, to let yourself off the hook, or to blame others. Rather, think of your self-compassionate voice as a wise and supportive mentor or a kind friend who's encouraging you to see things in a more clear and balanced way, to remember that no-one is perfect and to be kind, understanding and accountable to yourself.
Neff explains that these three core qualities - mindfulness, connectedness and self-kindness - help us to see that our voices of self-criticism aren't really trying to harm us, but are often unnecessarily harsh in a misguided effort to protect us. So instead of taming, shaming or blaming these voices for undermining our confidence, self-compassion has been found to help reduce our levels of stress, anxiety and self-doubt by allowing us to see them for what they are - just stories about the things we fear, and not the truth about who we are or what we're capable of.
As a result studies have found self-compassion helps us to generate more positive feelings that balance out our fears, allowing us to feel more joyous, calm and confident. It helps us to activate our brain's care-giving and self-awareness systems making it easier to believe that we are capable and worthy, making us less self-conscious, less likely to compare ourselves to others and less likely to feel insecure. And far from being self-indulgent or "soft" the deliberate use of self-compassionate talk has been found to be an effective means of enhancing our motivation, our performance and our resilience.
So how can you practice more self-compassion?
Neff suggests that self-compassion is a teachable skill that is "dose dependent." The
more you practice it the better you get. You might find it helpful to try:
- Identifying what you really want by thinking about the ways that you use self-criticism as a motivator (I'm too overweight, I'm too lazy, I'm too impulsive) because you think being hard on yourself will help you change. What language would a wise and nurturing mentor or friend use to gently point out how your behavior is unproductive, whilst encouraging you to do something different? What's the most supportive message you can think of that's in line with your underlying wish to be healthy and happy when it comes to creating these changes? Then write this down and put it somewhere you can see it each day.
- Keeping a self-compassion journal for a week (or longer if you like) and write down anything you've felt bad about, anything you judged yourself for, or any difficult experience that have caused you pain. For each event, practice using your kindness, sense of connectedness to humanity and mindfulness to process the event in a more self-compassionate way.
- Creating a self-compassion mantra. I found my self-critical voice was quick to remind me that "I wasn't really good enough", so I started gently countering this with my self-compassionate voice who reminded me that "Actually in most situations you're better than you think you are." This kind reminder was enough to slow down the negative spiral of fear and self-doubt, so I could mindfully attend to what was actually unfolding and make more informed choices about what I wanted to be doing. Try to create your own self-compassion mantra by thinking about what a wise mentor or kind friend would say in these moments, and try to focus on these in moments of self-doubt.
You'll find many more resources on self-compassion including extra exercises and meditations you can try at Neff's website www.self-compassion.org. There is also some promising emerging research around the eight-week Mindful Self-Compassion courses you can find in many countries that incorporates formal meditation practices, interpersonal exercises and home practices.
If you were to try a little self-compassion right now, and speak to yourself like you would any other good friend, where would you start?