How to silence the harsh self-critic in your own head
Learning to still be a friend to yourself despite your imperfections is a vital skill
Your faults and virtues are shared by millions, maybe billions, of other people at this moment. Photograph: iStock
“I can take care of other people but when it comes to myself it’s a different story.”
Anybody working in mental health will have heard that statement many times. The practice of self-compassion aims to counteract this tendency. Self-compassion really just means being kind to yourself as you would be to other people.
Surely this can be taken for granted?
Not so, and this has been recognised by many of the great names in psychology over many decades. In my book Kindfulness I mention three in particular: Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers and Albert Ellis. Freud suggested that each of us has a very harsh critic in our head. It’s called the superego. I’m sure you experience its presence quite often. It can criticise you for everything from your choice of partner to what colour socks you put on this morning.
Carl Rogers, widely regarded as the father of counselling, suggested that we put conditions on ourselves that we have to achieve before we can see ourselves as truly worthwhile. These conditions are often impossible. Suppose you struggle to bring your child to daycare and then to get your work done in time to collect your child so that you can spend the evening with them. Lots of people – including, probably, your child in later years – would say you’re heroic. But if you believe subconsciously that good parents give undivided attention to their children – that is, don’t work – or that good workers never, ever leave early, then there’s a good chance you’re going to feel lousy about yourself.
The psychotherapist Albert Ellis talked about irrational rules we live by, often only half-consciously. A common one is: I must achieve enough to impress everybody who matters to me or it will be terrible. Wanting to impress people is okay, but thinking that failing to do so will be awful is just irrational.
Self-compassion sidesteps all this by saying: even if I picked the wrong career, am not a perfect parent and sometimes fail to impress, I am still a friend to myself.
You don’t put a condition on it that says: when I have moulded myself into the person I think I ought to be, then I can like myself. Don’t wait on that platform – perfection is a train that rarely arrives at the station.
Does self-compassion kill ambition? The research suggests that self-compassionate people can be just as ambitious as anyone else. Researcher Dr Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas, suggests self-compassionate individuals may even find it easier to take on challenges because they know that if they fail they will still be friends to themselves.
A Portugese study suggests that self-compassionate parents may find it easier to listen to their children’s needs because their own sense of self-worth makes hearing those needs less threatening, especially if they are going to have to be unpopular by saying no.
Self-compassion involves another couple of components. One is recognising our common humanity. This means realising that your faults and virtues are shared by millions, maybe billions of other people at this moment. This lightens the burden, especially when it comes to our faults.
A third component is being mindful, which in this case means returning your attention to the present moment as often as you can. This sort of awareness enables you to spot yourself being hard on yourself and then to step back and take a more compassionate view.
If you’re doing toxic levels of work, awareness combined with self-compassion can help you see you might need to change how you work or change who you’re working for.
A final word about self-compassion: don’t try to do it perfectly.
Remember, it’s the imperfect you who needs your friendship.
Well-wishing: Try this variation on an old Buddhist practice. Imagine that somebody you like or love has sat down facing you. Generate a feeling of goodwill towards them, saying silently “Be happy, be safe, be well”. Now imagine that you can observe you yourself, with your faults and virtues, sitting there. Try to generate that same goodwill towards yourself, saying “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be well”.
Body scan: Move your awareness along your body from your feet to the top of your head. Try to generate a feeling of compassion towards this body that accompanies you through life. Do it slowly. This can be helpful if you lie awake at night.
Soften the tone: We often speak to ourselves very harshly in our minds. When you spot this happening, try to soften your tone of voice. Usually you will drop the harsh statement every time you do this.
Padraig O’Morain (padraigomorain.com) is the author of Kindfulness: Be a True Friend to Yourself with Mindful Self-compassion (Yellow Kite Books)