This blog is inspired by a podcast that I listened to recently, which really resonated with me both personally and professionally. It was all about self-compassion, and the inner critic, which is so often a barrier to greater health and happiness. As an Osteopath and Health Coach, I often encounter people that are struggling to thrive as a result of a harsh inner-critic and a lack of self-compassion. We all possess an ego that wants to protect us and also get the very best out of us. Unfortunately, the ego is never satisfied and always wants better. The partnership of an insatiable ego and a harsh self-critic is not the best combination for happiness and fulfillment. Feelings of failure, fear of challenge, low confidence and self- worth are just a few consequences of a rampant inner-critic. These feeling influence our habits, behaviours and ultimately our physical and mental health.
It would not be an over exaggeration to say that the majority of patients that I encounter have one or more self-limiting beliefs that negatively impact their health. These are particularly noticeable in the realm of metabolic health and weight loss. It is not uncommon for clients to sabotage their weight loss efforts as a result of limiting beliefs that do not truly reflect who they are, or what they are capable of. These beliefs are often underpinned by a lack of self-compassion and a harsh inner-critic. Whether it is weight loss, recovery from disease, injury or pain- self-compassion is a fundamental component of a successful journey.
A lack of self-compassion is still a personal challenge for me. Like many, I have a habit of holding myself to high standards which are often unmet. This leads to self-criticism that leaves me feeling more disempowered than motivated to do better the next time. If there is one quote that I truly believe, it is that:
‘We are our own harshest critic’
A little self-criticism and doubt can help us develop and learn from our mistakes, but it can also prevent us from feeling confident, taking risks and believing in ourselves. For me personally, the only good thing about my habit of self-criticism is that it helps me empathize and connect more with my patients.
Helping people get out of their own way has helped me understand the insidious nature and power of self-criticism. It seems to hide itself within the human psyche and can go unchallenged for a lifetime unless we become aware of it. Once aware, we can challenge it’s validity, and then work on transforming it into a more compassionate self-narrative. One that is more supportive and empowering, and less critical. One that is more focused on lessons learnt than failures suffered.
Self-criticism may be a useful way of creating self-awareness and personal growth, but it can also limit our happiness and life experience through feelings of guilt, shame and unhelpful limiting beliefs. Although self-criticism may motivate us to do better, this motivation is often derived from a fear of failure and self-punishment.
Food For the Inner-Critic
Our modern day cultural obsessions with social media, narcissism, and individuality are fuel for the fire of self-criticism. The exaggerated lifestyles we are constantly exposed to via social media can be a catalyst to feelings of insufficiency and unfulfillment, while intelligent branding and marketing convinces us to buy things in order to feel complete, and keep up with the world. Our comparative inner-critic can rob us of our self-worth as we continually try to buy our way to happiness and ‘keep up with the Joneses.’
Stigma is also food for the inner critic. Unfortunately, the many different ethnicities, genders, traditions and religions embraced within western culture, are prone to prejudice and stereotypes, which contribute to both social and self-stigma. Cultural prejudices and public stigmas are often internalized to become self-stigmas.
As a mixed race man growing up in the working class city of Hull, I unknowingly held onto a number of stigmas that contributed to lack of self-worth and excessive self-criticism. Even as a young royal marine I was told on numerous occasions that the colour of my skin meant that I would need to try harder than my peers to succeed. I came to expect prejudice and racism in many areas of my life from getting a job, to having a relationship, and even socializing. Feelings of inferiority stayed with me throughout my 20’s, until I moved to London, where my immediate professional success helped to restore some self-confidence, self-esteem and a belief in some kind of meritocracy.
Through personal experiences and how I believed society viewed me, I had internalized stigmas, which where devoid of self-compassion and self-worth. As a result, I treated myself with a lack of respect and a lack of aspiration.
Downsides of low self-compassion
As a clinician, I commonly encounter a lack of self-compassion in the people I treat. Patients often tell me that they ‘need’ to or ‘should’ do things like lose weight or exercise. This disparity between what we think we should do and what we are doing can create a kind of internal pressure and inner conflict that fuels self-criticism. In addition, many people I see have attempted to establish health behaviours, and for different reasons, not managed to sustain their efforts. This perceived failure can result in limiting beliefs, unnecessary self-criticism, fear of failure and a subsequent resistance to future health endevours.
Perceived failures can provide wisdom, resilience and experience. All of which make subsequent attempts at most things easier. The mindset with which we view difficult experiences will influence our capacity to harness and apply the wisdom that we gain from them. A more compassionate mindset will bolster our resilience in the face of shortcomings and help us bounce back better and wiser.
What is Self-Compassion
According to Kristin Neff– a pioneer in the field of self-compassion, being Self-Compassionate is being kind to ourselves when confronted with painful experiences. It is being understanding toward ourselves when we fail, suffer and feel inadequate. This requires an acceptance that our lives are fraught with losses, mistakes, unmet expectations and frustrations. This acceptance may not make painful experiences any less painful, however, by being more compassionate than critical to ourselves, we are more likely to any challenge because when we experience loss, the feelings can be like we are the only ones experiencing the difficulties and discomfort
Whatever we set out to achieve, we must support each challenge with self-compassion. This doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook when things don’t go our way, or trying to avoid the discomfort of failure. It means acknowledging the discomfort of failure as part of the process of achievement. It means recognizing our shortcomings and using a supportive self narrative to go again-armed with more wisdom and experience.
A self-compassionate narrative may sound something like this:
‘I acknowledge that I feel disappointed about not succeeding this time, but I learned how to do things better and if I practice at my weaknesses, the next time will be a much better result for me.’
A self-critical narrative may sound something like:
‘I feel embarrassed with my performance. After all the work I put in I can’t believe that happened. This isn’t good enough.’
Fertile Ground for a Growth Mindset
Self-compassion provides the fertile ground for a Growth Mindset, which encompasses learning, challenging ourselves, and sticking to things even when they are not going well. This ultimately builds resilience and the ability to cope and thrive during life’s most challenging times. The work of Caroline Dweck, on Growth and Fixed Mindsets, sums up the difference between self-criticism and self-compassion with the word ‘Yet.’
Self-criticism may sound like:
‘I’m not very good at this’.
Self-compassion may sound like:
‘I’m not good at this YET’.
How is your Self-Compassion?
A good way of appraising our levels of self-compassion is to imagine the narrative inside our head when we fall short of our own expectations, coming from the mouth of a friend. Then ask ourselves if we would like to be around a friend like this when we experience loss or failure?
Alternatively, we can ask ourselves if we would speak to a close friend the way we speak to ourselves in a difficult situation. If the answer is no, maybe we need to practice being kinder to ourselves.
Compassion is an innate human quality that can be cultivated through the simple practice of mindfulness meditation. One of the fundamental aims of any meditation practice to is to become more aware of the nagging inner voice that is constantly judging and criticizing ourselves and the world around us. Mindfulness practice helps us observe our thoughts and emotions non-judgmentally, and also develop a more gentle mind, in which kindness and compassion can thrive more easily.
Using specific mindfulness techniques such as skillful compassion, we can focus our compassion on the suffering of others, and in turn develop greater compassion for ourselves.
There are other ways of cultivating self-compassion, but surely one of the most important and powerful ways of doing so is to care of the body (and as a consequence- the mind) through healthy behaviours. Making good choices for ourselves will starve the inner self-critic of content and create a foundation of harmony and strength within us, from which self-compassion can flourish.
Henry Ford said- ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’ This is a good reason to speak to ourselves with compassion when we experience the inevitable failures that are part of a meaningful and fulfilling life. In contrast self-criticism and deprecation may create self-limiting beliefs and negative stigmas that create barriers to health and happiness.
With self-compassion we can still give ourselves a motivational kick up the butt to do better, however this motivation is coming from a place of support and understanding, not fear of failure.
Good health and happiness are not constants and have no destination. Wellness is a lifelong and undulating journey of highs and lows. There will always be hills to climb, each one different from the last. Sometimes we will stumble and fall, and when we do, self-compassion will help us get back to our feet, while self-criticism is more likely to kick us when we’re down!
So when life is hard enough anyway, don’t get in your own way!
If you’re struggling with maintaining the health and happiness you deserve, and feel like you need some support, feel free to get in touch.
Take Care and Be Well