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Self Criticism: Would You Be Friends With You?

I’m going to ask you to do a little thought experiment with me. Think of your dearest friend. Don’t just gloss over this. Really take a couple seconds to call their face to mind. Think about why you’re friends and why you care about this person. 

Now think about a time when they were struggling. Maybe they were going through a rough patch or had too much on their plate or made a mistake or regrettable decision.

How did you respond to your friend? How did you show up for them? Recall not just what you said or did, but how you said and did it. What did you face look like? How did your voice sound? 

Now think about a time when YOU were struggling. Maybe YOU were going through a rough patch, having a hard time handling things, or maybe YOU made a mistake. 

How did you treat yourself in that moment? How did show up for yourself? What did you say to yourself? How did you say it? 

Are there any differences between how you treated your friend and how you treated yourself? 

What would happen if you treated your friend the way you treated yourself? What would happen if you said the things you say to yourself out loud to another human, especially someone you care about? Real talk time. Would you still have a friend? 

So many people treat themselves with harsh criticism that they would never dream of directing at someone else. You deserve to be treated with the same respect and kindness you readily give to your bestie! 

Why we self-criticize

We’ve all fallen into the trap of self criticism at some point for one reason or another. Sometimes, it’s because we were taught to self-criticize, either by others criticizing us directly or by hearing them criticize themselves. Regardless, we internalized that mental habit.

Sometimes, self criticism stems from a misguided effort to motivate or drive ourselves to excellence. We may have critical thoughts or beliefs that make us believe that being hard on ourselves is the path to success. If I don’t beat myself up, I’m letting myself off the hook. I’ll lose my edge and not accomplish my goals. Sound familiar?

The downside of self criticism

While criticism may fuel motivation initially, it actually tends to backfire. You may have had some firsthand experience with this. Have you ever had a boss or friend or family member who constantly put you down? What happened? Perhaps you worked to gain their approval, without success, or perhaps you stopped trying as hard, figuring what’s the point? Either way, it didn’t bring out the best in you and help succeed long term.

Our brains perceive criticism as a threat to our sense of self, and the result is that our fight-or-flight response gets triggered. A little stress can provide motivation, but prolonged or chronic stress actually zaps motivation. This self-criticism can contribute to a fear of failure, holding us back from taking risks or keeping us from being able to learn valuable lessons form mistakes (we don’t learn well when we’re in fight-or-flight mode). 

Be a good friend to you

The antidote to self criticism is self compassion – essentially being a good friend to yourself. I implore you to treat yourself with the same care and respect you show others. Think of how you value your interpersonal relationships, you would never talk to your friend the way you talk to yourself. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it, too!

Self compassion (the practice of empathy + kindness for yourself) is a psychological superpower. It brings so many well-being benefits (like more happiness and resilience), and it helps us recover and learn from mistakes more quickly, leading to more effective outcomes. You can learn more about self-compassion in our Ascend program (there’s an entire bonus module dedicated to it). For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite ways to be a good friend to yourself and build self-compassion.

Of course!

These two little words, “Of course!” These magic little words. In the face of a hard situation or a mistake, start with “Of course.”

Of course I feel this way! Who wouldn’t feel XYZ in this situation. It’s hard! 

Of course I overlooked that. I’ve been so stressed lately that I’m not firing on all cylinders. That’s understandable.

Of course I’m anxious! This is a stretch outside of my comfort zone.

Of course helps you show up with care and support in your hardest moments, when you need it most. Whatever it is, start with “of course” and see if that doesn’t change the way things go from there. You’ll not only feel better, but you’ll be better able to take effective action because you won’t be spinning out in fight-or-flight mode. You need to hold yourself to high standards when it comes to showing yourself some compassion! 

“The most important relationship in your life is the relationship you have with yourself. Because no matter what happens, you will always be with yourself.”
– Diane Von Furstenberg
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A Quick Technique to Develop Compassion for Anyone

Last week, Ashley wrote a post about judgements. And, we’ve talked extensively about the importance of avoiding judgement and accepting (not necessarily approving of) other people’s behavior.

We simply can’t force others to do something, think something, or be a certain way. Even when, if we’re being absolutely honest, we believe they’re WRONG.

This can be incredibly hard, which is why I want to introduce a technique that can help you build compassion for nearly anyone, even if they’re the person you disagree with most in the world.

You are not your thoughts.

Let’s begin on solid footing. You’ve heard us say the phrase, “You are not your thoughts” many times.

What we mean by this is:

Your mind is a thought-generating machine.

It subconsciously learned a number of automatic, involuntary, and habitual thought patterns over the years.

It constantly spews these thoughts, resulting emotions, urges, beliefs at us, every waking moment of the day.

Most of these thoughts aren’t useful, helpful, or even accurate.

YOU are not generating them. It’s the involuntary part of your mind.

They are not you.

Breaking that down even further, it means that, through the process of neuroplasticity, your mind has taken in subtle and overt information from people, the environment, the media, and other places over the years, and it has ‘learned’ to react in a certain way.

Through no intention of your own.

Your mind is like your blabber-mouth roommate who talks constantly and has an opinion about everything. 

It feeds you the self-criticism it has learned. The self-limiting beliefs it has learned. The knee-jerk reactions about the world and other people that it has learned.

And, although it feels “authentic” and as if it is our “own voice” in there. It’s not. You are separate from that involuntary voice.

You are the person who is observing that voice, but man can that voice have a powerful influence over each and every one of us!

THEY are not THEIR thoughts

This knowledge, if applied to other people, can be used to help you develop compassion for nearly anyone else in the world. 

Stay with me.

Imagine someone you really disagree with. Someone, dare I say it, who you really dislike. Someone whose beliefs and repeated behaviors make it very difficult to have compassion for them.

Now…imagine what that person must have involuntarily and unfortunately learned throughout their life to get them to believe those things and behave that way.

You see, no one is immune from neuroplasticity. And thankfully so! It is the reason why we can reinvent our sense of self, learn new things, build psychological strength!

But, it’s also the reason why we….all of us….learn unhelpful and sabotaging beliefs, behaviors, thoughts, and habits.

What must that other person have learned about themselves, their limitations, the world, what to fear, who not to trust, what they can and can’t count on, and so much more?

Now, think about that person as a newborn baby. A baby who has their whole life ahead of them. A baby who has not yet learned these things.

Think about directly telling that baby the things that person must have learned in order to be that way.

Then, sink into the compassion you feel for that innocent version of that person. That innocent baby is still in there. It’s still inside all of us. But, it can be covered and silenced by decades of unhelpful “lessons” we’ve learned.

Compassion

Compassion is one of the easiest ways to avoid making a judgement about yourself and about another person. 

It’s a quick way to soften the edges and begin to repair a connection, have a more effective conversation, find common ground.

I hope this exercise gave you one more way to do that.