How to Contend With Being Your Own Harshest Critic

by Liza Gertler, M.A.

Have you ever done something you regret? Faced a difficult or painful experience? Made a mistake? Performed poorly on a test or presentation? All of us can answer “yes” to the previous questions. How do you respond to yourself in these situations? Do you find that you are forgiving? Are you harsh and impatient? Ashamed or punitive? If your reaction is on the negative end of the spectrum, you are likely having an experience similar to many of your peers, especially those who find themselves in college.  With all of the external pressures imposed upon college students today, fielding the criticisms of a harsh internal voice provides an additional challenge. Learning to be more compassionate and kind toward one’s self may be a powerful tool.

Psychologist Kirsten Neff Ph.D. pioneered research on the concept of self-compassion. She defines self-compassion as extending kindness and understanding towards yourself when you are confronted with personal failures, and remembering that imperfection is a part of human experience. She encourages us to extend the same kindness and understanding towards ourselves as we might towards a friend.  There are three components to self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness.

Self-kindness involves extending patience, kindness and non-judgmental understanding toward the self1.  It involves being open and moved by our own suffering while simultaneously allowing for caring and kindness toward ourselves.  This requires us to take a non-judgmental stance toward ourselves, even in times of difficulty, when we might have the inclination to focus on our failures or seeming inadequacies1.                                

The second component of self-compassion is common humanity.  During times of suffering, it is important to remember that the causes of our distress, sufferings, failures, and inadequacies are not unique and, therefore, are not meant to be endured in isolation. It is important to remember that these are a shared part of being human. In this way, we do not suffer alone and instead feel connected to others. This can help us to acknowledge that we deserve the same compassion we may more easily extend to others1.  This understanding and acknowledgement of the interconnectedness of humanity may help us to place experiences of suffering into a greater context. In turn, this may decrease our over-identification with the cause of that suffering by reminding us that others share our experiences1.

In order to avoid this type of over-identification, we must engage in a certain level and quality of awareness.  Namely, one must practice mindfulness, the third component of self-compassion.  Neff (2003) defines mindfulness as “a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which individuals observe their thoughts and feelings as they arise without trying to change them or push them away, but without running away with them either” (p. 224).  Avoiding or repressing painful feelings, does not cultivate awareness of ourselves, and so, we must acknowledge such feelings in order to have compassion for them1.  At the same time, we must be cautious about letting these emotions become too dominant for us, because doing so can make it difficult to remember that our experiences and emotions are a part of a broader human experience which can help us to more easily extend kindness to ourselves1.

The caveat here is that when we have related to ourselves in a particular way for an extended period of time, it takes time and practice to change. To learn to be more compassionate to ourselves and to integrate awareness of self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness into our every day lives is not an easy task. When things don’t go the way we have hoped or planned, during times of difficulty, pain, stress, and challenge, thinking about the ways that we might respond to or relate to a friend, and extending that toward ourselves, is a great place to start.

Visit Selfcompassion.org for more information.

Test how self-compassionate you are: http://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/

  1. Neff, K. D. (2003). The Development and Validation of a Scale to Measure Self-

Compassion. Self and Identity, 2(3), 223–250. doi:10.1080/15298860309027

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