• Vanessa Vella

Self-Criticism and Self-Compassion: A Mindset Smackdown

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

Yesterday was a stellar day for me (yes, thank you, *curtsies gracefully*). Just joking! 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 all that other stuff).

I don’t think I’ll be blowing any minds with this opening salvo: 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, they truly do suck. 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 hard to make that mindset shift from self-criticism to to self-compassion

How I managed to win the day with self-compassion:

The short answer is: with tons of practice over lots of time. More specifically, by breaking self-compassion down into it’s contingent parts and getting down with them one at a time.

Mindfulness is first, as most good thoughts start with tuning into the present moment and taking stock of what’s happening. I notice what I’m feeling as objectively as possible, without judgement or criticism. For example, noticing that ‘I feel hot and weird and dumb’ without adding the ‘Which means I am obviously disheleved and making everyone mad just like I always do, like that one time in 1998, it was a hot summer day… Nope. Just noticing and naming feelings, then noticing some more.

Next comes self-kindness, which probably seems like the logical first step, but without being tuned into the present self-kindness is harder to come by. I usually ask myself, ‘How would I respond to a friend right now?’ and try to do that. It’s much easier to talk myself down off my panic ledge with helpful, soothing words like ‘It’s okay, take a deep breath, homie’ than it is with crazy-making, bossy shouts like ‘Stop this at once, you crazy bastard!’

Finally, the cherry on top: common humanity. Literally just remembering (because it is so easy to forget in these moments) that ‘everyone makes mistakes’ and ‘pobody’s nerfect.’ Did some stupid stuff that makes you feel embarassed and disappointed in yourself? Welcome to the human family, sibling! Because seriously, who hasn’t done that? It doesn’t even matter what you replace ‘that’ with, I can pretty much guarantee you aren’t the only one who’s experienced it. The trouble comes when our minds convince us that ‘no one understands my pain!’ or that ‘I’m the only one who goes through this!’

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 and potentially become a bigger issue. Reaching out in these moments can be really hard. Taking the first step is a challenge, but so too is thinking about it after. Self-doubt can set in with thoughts like ‘did I share too much?’ or ‘do they think differently about me now?’ It reminds me of when Brene Brown talked about having a ‘vulnerability hangover’ after her first TED Talk went viral. She had been vulnerable in her talk about her research into vulnerability (makes sense!) but once she realized the extent of the exposure of the video, she felt like she’d overexposed herself and that made her feel nauseated and want to eat pizza and lay about all day (I assume, based on my previous hangover experiences).

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 some unfortunate 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.

Now that the events have passed and the vulnerability hangover has come and gone, I feel pretty good about myself. I am good at self-compassion (sometimes)! While I went to sleep basking in my own self congratulations, there's always more work to do. The good news is that it gets easier over time. It starts coming more naturally (hooray for neuroplasticity!) and you’ll less often need to google “3 elements of self-compassion” to remember WTF you are supposed to be doing with yourself right now.

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