We all have one – that voice that tells us to be better or somehow different to how we actually are. Often, it says things like, “Why didn’t you…!?” or “You should have…!” Sometimes, it even calls us names like, “pathetic”, “stupid” and “hopeless”. This is known as our inner critic. For some people, the inner critic has a familiar voice, using similar language as a parent or spouse that we feel has been overly critical and judgemental of us in the past. It is typically during times of real struggle or when we are facing tough moments in life that our old ‘friend’, the inner critic, rears its head.
We know that everyone has an inner critic – some are just louder than others. What if there was a way to calm that voice? Rather than responding to ourselves during tough moments with harsh, cold language, what if instead, we showed ourselves some kindness, like we would a friend going through the same struggles? Sounds simple enough.
Recently, I attended a workshop on an area of psychology that has had me hooked for some time now. It is known as Mindful Self-Compassion, and was first operationalised and measured by world leading expert, Kristen Neff over a decade ago. Since then, it has received a lot of research attention and is now a well-recognised, evidence-based intervention for various psychological problems.
Cultivating mindful self-compassion can help us to understand and therefore respond appropriately to our inner critic so that it doesn’t hurt us as much as it would if we weren’t able to see it for what it was. Importantly, self-compassion isn’t about letting ourselves “off the hook”, which is a common misconception. Self-compassion is a strong practice, requiring the person to be completely open and honest with themselves. It requires the person to be mindful, that is, aware of what they are feeling in the present moment, and it also requires that they recognise everyone struggles at times. We are all human and despite our other differences, dealing with the pain and struggles of life is something we will always have in common. Acknowledgement of our own feelings and that we are not alone in those feelings gives us the ability to look inward with greater appreciation of ourselves just as we are, and enables us to consciously choose how we behave in the future. People with higher self-compassion are more likely to be in better relationships, have better psychological well-being, and change health behaviours for the better.
One of the exercises we did in the workshop was called “How would you treat a friend?” We were asked to think about when a friend was going through a difficult time and to write down how we responded to them in that moment, including things like: what language did we use? what tone of voice did we use? what behaviours did we engage in? We were then asked to imagine a time when we were struggling ourselves, and to write down how we responded to ourselves during those times. Finally, we were asked if we noticed any differences in the way we responded to our friend and the way we responded to ourselves. Of the 20+ people in the room, every single person (myself included) reported that they treated their friend with warmth, care, support and kindness but under similar circumstances, treated themselves with harsh, critical judgement. When you look at the research, this isn’t unsurprising. One study suggests that around 78% of people treat friends more kindly than they do themselves, while only 2% of people treat themselves more kindly than others. The other 20% are somewhere in the middle.
We ended the workshop with what was termed a “self-appreciation exercise”. We were asked to write down three things about ourselves that we LOVE. Yes, you heard me right, L.O.V.E. While it may feel strange at first, this exercise is a powerful yet simple way toward cultivating self-compassion. Over time, self-compassion practice can lead to real, measurable improvements in psychological well-being. For that reason, I use self-compassion practices in my work, and also in my life.
TO SUM UP:
- Everyone has an inner critic – this is natural.
- There are ways to calm the inner critic so that it doesn’t negatively impact on our lives.
- Cultivating self-compassion is one way that we can calm our inner critic and improve well-being.
- Self-compassion is not about ‘letting ourselves off the hook’. It involves being mindful of our experiences, acknowledging that we are not alone and that everyone struggles from time-to-time, and treating ourselves with the same kindness that we would a dear friend.