Self Criticism and Self Compassion: A Smackdown

Yesterday was a stellar day for me (yes, thank you, thank you). I managed to disappoint and embarrass myself, in front of many others, which afforded me the opportunity to choose either self criticism or self compassion and… I chose self compassion. So I won the day! (except for that other stuff).

I don’t think I’ll set off any new revolutions by saying that self criticism is bad. We all know it. We all have an inner critic, and whether they are very noisy or more passive aggressive or only visit on holidays or hang out with us everywhere we go, that guy is a jerk. We know it isn’t helpful to listen to jerks in general, let alone the one in our heads (often the meanest jerk around town) - so why is it so tempting?

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I managed to win the day with self compassion by invoking, in the moment, the three elements of self compassion. Mindfulness is first, by noticing what I’m feeling without judgement or criticism (‘Well this sucks’ and ‘I feel hot and weird and dumb’ and ‘I think I look like an idiot right now’). Then, self kindness by talking myself down off my panic ledge, like I’d do with a friend (‘It’s okay’ and ‘You’ll be fine’ and ‘Take a deep breath’). And finally, common humanity (‘Everyone makes mistakes’ and ‘Nobody is perfect the first time’ and ‘Feeling disappointed in yourself just means you’re like everyone else’).

I even managed to up the ante by sharing that I was disappointed without landing myself in super self-deprecating, please-feel-bad-for-me territory and I reached out to my partner to talk about it instead of keeping it all inside my head to bounce around forever and become an ever bigger issue. All in all I felt pretty good about myself. I am so good at self compassion (sometimes)!

How did I get there? Glad you asked. After working hard on being more self compassionate for quite literally years, I finally felt I was able to make it a natural reaction, instead of a corrective reaction to being super negative about myself. It took a lot of repetition and, at times, was hella annoying and frustrating. But it was worth it because I made a new pathway in my brain! Go me!

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After I went to sleep, I woke up in the morning, as usually happens. Then, I immediately started thinking about the night before. The self compassion didn’t seem as persuasive in the light of day. My inner critic, who apparently wakes up very quickly, was firing off questions like ‘Are you sure you’re not just sugar coating your memory of this to make yourself feel better?’ and ‘How do you know you’ll even be given another opportunity? You might forgive yourself, but that doesn’t mean others will’ and ‘If you had prepared better, and did a better job, you wouldn't even need to be thinking about this right now.’ Even though I know all that negativity will never help me, it seemed pretty true. Where do I get off deciding that it’s okay to suck? Just because Kristin Neff keeps telling me that it’s okay, and offering up tons of ‘research’ and ‘facts’. Pffft.

It reminded me of when Brene Brown talked about having a ‘vulnerability hangover’ after her first TED Talk went viral. Because she had been vulnerable in her talk about vulnerability (makes sense) and then once she realized the extent of the exposure of the video, immediately regretted her decision.

While the circumstances were different for me, my situation also felt like a hangover. It definitely felt like regret,and a little queasy. I again felt disappointed in myself - for being negative about being disappointed in myself. So meta! And I was angry because I had done the thing in the first place. And now I was undoing it? That’s dumb, my inner critic kindly pointed out, while sowing the seeds of self doubt.

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No matter how much effort we put into changing our beliefs, attitudes, thought patterns and self talk, it’s important to remember that what’s familiar will always feel like the default. Even if that familiar place is icky and unhelpful and we feel like we’re done with it. Because it’s the default, it’s normal for our brains to ask ‘Are you sure you don’t want to sit in this old, worn out, familiar chair? It has your butt groove. It was made for you. Just sit here for a minute and see if you like it.’ We can’t just throw our imaginary thought chairs in the garbage (though that would be an interesting visualization to try… note to self). But we can choose to make a new way, a new tradition, or a new attitude.

It’s hard to remember that this impulse to doubt one’s self is ultimately a good thing. Our brains wouldn't be very smart or helpful if they accepted every new thing immediately and without question. That would result in much trouble, the least of which would be very random hairstyle choices. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s annoying as hell… but a little less annoying when I remember why it’s happening.

So now, I’m doing the work sprinkling self compassion all over everything again. While I went to sleep basking in my own self congratulations, and that was certainly better than falling asleep feeling sorry for myself, I made the mistake of assuming I was done. I did it! I’m great! File that away under “Done and Done”. I do wish sometimes my brain had actual file folders, where I could put things until I wanted them again, but that’s not how it works. Things just pop out at random, like Whac-a-Mole. And since it’s always going to be that way, I might as well use self compassion to accept the face that I’ll probably always feel a little (or a lot) self doubt, with a little regret mixed in, and a lot of questioning and back and forth dialogue with myself. And that’s okay.