Imagine that you have a dear friend who has made a mistake, or experienced disappointment or failure. What would you say to them? How would you say it?
"You pathetic person! Look at you, sniveling and crying. You should have tried harder, but you didn't. You are weak! You are lazy and weak," you say to your friend in harsh, mean, angry voice tones, your face contorted with disdain.
No!! That's not what you would say, not if you were genuinely wanting to help your friend. But we often say this kind of thing to ourselves when we make a mistake, or experience disappointment or failure. Why on earth do we treat ourselves so harshly?
Many people feel like there are good things about their self-criticism:
My self-criticism keeps me motivated.
It stops me being lazy,
Makes me keep improving,
Keeps me accountable, and
Helps me stay modest.
And many people feel very reluctant to let their self-criticism go. This is the fascinating paradox: we would never treat someone we care about with such harsh and attacking criticism, but we are convinced that it is good for ourselves...despite it usually making us feel much worse. Where on earth does this all come from?
Yep, as with many aspects of human emotion, thought and behaviour, self-criticism arises from our tricky brains that were designed for us to help us survive, and not designed by us...otherwise we would have designed it to always make us happy! And the greatest threat to the survival of prehistoric humans was social threat; being disapproved of, devalued and cast out of the group and into the wild. Survival wasn't so easy out there on our own!
So, we developed certain capacities for self-awareness and self-monitoring: how am I going...what is my status...how do others see me...am I performing well enough to stay...do I add value in the group...am I adequate, worthy...wanted?
Unfortunately, problems arise when the self-awareness and self-monitoring capacities are hijacked by the threat system. Suddenly, all we can see is our own deficits and the resulting social threat, and the only way to deal with that seems to be to get tougher and tougher with ourselves, pointing out these deficits, attacking apparent weaknesses, and condemning ourselves for being no good.
But I want to keep improving! What if I give up my self-criticism and then everything falls apart?
Fair enough. We all have a wish to keep improving, we have certain goals and aspirations, and we all need something that keeps us motivated. And so there is a bit of nuance here. Not all self-criticism is the same. We have the self-attacking, self-hating self-criticism, and then we have the self-improving, self-encouraging self-criticism. Shifting from the first to the second can make all the difference!
This is where compassion comes in, and in particular compassionate encouragement! We can still reflect on how we are going, what is going well and not so well, where we can improve, what we could change or what we really need to practice. Like a golfer, reflecting on their game, identifying the need to work on their short game, and then practicing with a thousand balls out of the bunker.
But with a different tone. We approach ourselves like a good coach or teacher, validating ourselves and our efforts, reassuring our own intrinsic worth and belonging, providing fair and helpful feedback, and then encouraging ourselves to keep going and keep trying.
Come to think of it, it's basically what you would say to a dear friend who has made a mistake, or experienced disappointment or failure, and how you would say it. The only difference is that you are offering it to yourself...
"Oooh. That was a tough one. But you'll be ok. You are such a good and decent person, and I know you want to do this well. There's a couple of things you could think about, if you like. Maybe you could work a little on the way you did [this or that], and maybe you could do more practice [here and there]," you say with a kind and supportive voice, your face softening to a warm and friendly expression. "What do you think? What could you do from here that would truly be in your best interests?"
If you would like to learn more about self-criticism, check out my book The Gifts of Compassion. Chapter 8 is all about Working with Self-Criticism!