Self-criticism is generally motivated by positive intentions. These include things like avoiding mistakes, or at least not repeating them; motivating ourselves to do better or to develop personally or professionally; protecting our relationships by making sure that we don’t do something that hurts somebody’s feelings, that kind of thing.
Self-compassion refers to being kind to ourselves when we are suffering or you could say because we are suffering. And there are three elements of self-compassion. Self-kindness, which is a sense– sorry– and a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness refers to the tendency to be caring and understanding with ourselves, rather than being harshly critical or judgmental. Common humanity involves recognising that all humans are imperfect.
Explore the difference between self-criticism and self-compassion in this exercise.
Bring to mind someone you care about who is experiencing some difficulty – perhaps a failure or setback, some misfortune, or is otherwise having a difficult time. Someone you care about who is suffering.
Reflect for a moment on how you have tended to respond to them. What have you said? What tone of voice did you use? Did you do anything else, such as touch or hug them? What was the message being conveyed in what you said and did?
Notice how it feels in your body as you remember showing up for them in this way. How do you think what you said and did was experienced by the other person?
You may like to write this down or record your thoughts in a way that’s comfortable for you.
Now take a moment to reflect on a time when you experienced some difficulty – a failure or setback, some misfortune, or were otherwise having a difficult time. A time that you were suffering the effects of these experiences.
Reflect for a moment on how you responded to yourself. What did you say to yourself? What was the tone of voice in your head?
How does this feel in your body?
Again, you may like to write this down or record your thoughts in a way that’s comfortable for you.
Take a moment to notice the differences between the way you tend to relate to others who are suffering these things and the way you tend to relate to yourself.
Did you discover that you tend to be much tougher on yourself than on others? If so, don’t worry – most people find that. It tends to be much easier to be kind and compassionate toward others than toward ourselves. When others are suffering, we often naturally bring an attitude of loving presence to them, softening our voice, being physically close and conveying a message of acceptance. Yet when it is us who is suffering, we tend to respond with self-criticism. We say harsh things to ourselves, conveying a sense of anything but acceptance.
Self-criticism often comes from a well-meaning place. We use it to motivate ourselves to do better, to avoid making (or at least repeating) mistakes, and to protect relationships (by not hurting others’ feelings). It can also be the internalised voice of our caregivers from when we were little – we tend to relate to ourselves the way our parents and other significant figures related to us (and to themselves) when we were young.
But self-criticism has a cost. It activates the amygdala and triggers stress responses, flooding us with adrenaline and cortisol and compounding the suffering we are already experiencing. To use an old (possibly outdated) metaphor, it’s like we have been shot with an arrow (the initial failure, setback or other form of suffering) and rather than tending to our wounds and being kind to ourselves, we shoot ourselves with a second arrow. We have little control over the initial wounds that we receive in life, but we have a great deal more over whether we let fly the second arrow.